One of the most under-developed game mechanics in D&D is the Curse. This has so many problems its hard to know where to begin, but I’ll give it a shot:
- Only clerics can curse because its a clerical spell.
- They hold no fear for anyone because they are so easily lifted.
- The suggested effects don’t even come close to matching human inventiveness when it comes to curses.
Curses are an untapped source of creative and roleplaying potential.
The Shards Connection
Having realized the above some time ago, when the proper opportunity arose while preparing the house rules for my Shards Of Divinity campaign, I seized it. The Shards campaign was intended to be a marriage between Gothic elements and High Fantasy, and giving Curses a bit more bite was essential to capturing that genre meld.
My solution was based, in part, on Curses Large and Small by Lloyd Brown III, which appeared in Knights Of The Dinner Table Issue 115, published by KenzerCo in 2006. I modified the contents of that article to suit my campaign’s needs at the time, and have revised them somewhat in light of experience for the appearance of the House Rules here.
The Anatomy Of A Curse
A curse consists of three elements: the effect, the misdeed, and the deity inflicting the effect in response to the misdeed. A fourth necessary element is a DC for the breaking of the curse. In addition, there are a couple of optional elements that may be included – triggers and duration limits, for example. Each of these subjects is considered in detail below.
Anyone can cast a curse – sometimes – at a price
The first major change is this: Anyone can beseech one of the Gods to bestow a Curse apon their enemies.
If the Curse is being bestowed as a dying act, the decision as to whether or not the Curse will be inflicted depends on the relationship between the Deity, the person requesting the Curse, and the circumstances. If the petitioner has been a faithful follower of the Deity, or the request accords with the portfolio of the Deity, the Curse may be bestowed. In making the request, the petitioner pledges his spirit to the service of the Deity in the afterlife. The GM may also rule that a Curse can be bestowed under other circumstances, such as when the petitioner is the last survivor of a family or group. Such curses must target the non-divine non-demonic non-devilish being responsible for actually carrying out the act. In return, the petitioner pledges his life to the service of the Deity.
If the point of death has not been reached, the proclivities (alignment) of the Deity becomes a factor.
- If the Deity is of Good alignment, a Curse will only be inflicted as punishment for an evil act.
- If the Deity is Neutral, a Curse will only be inflicted as a measure of Balance or unnatural act. It is not sufficient for the Curse to be in retribution for an act of extreme alignment. Furthermore, the act being punished must be in direct opposition to the portfolio of the Deity in question. For example, polluting a waterway would justify a curse by a god of Nature.
- If the Deity is Evil, a curse will only be inflicted if it will benefit the petitioner and be in retaliation for a specific act of a Good nature that directly impacts the petitioner.
When a Curse is petitioned, the Deity will announce a price in response. Depending on the personality of the Deity, they may or may not haggle, and may or may not demand payment in advance. This payment will usually be in the form of service, though that service may be indirect – the construction of a shrine or temple, the commission of a statue or artwork, the publication of a book of prayer or philosophy, the sponsoring of a charity or orphanage, the creation of a park, the sacrifice of the first-born or mate, the sabotage of a trade agreement.
It is usually easier to prepare a “price tag” in advance for deities when one of their followers is likely to be encountered.
Not all such requests will be granted, even as a dying act. People die, and get killed, all the time, and even the promise of service in the afterlife may not be sufficient to convince the deity to grant the request. Something about the circumstances needs to be exceptional, or the character making the bequest must be particularly valuable as a follower to the deity. Being a cleric or priest of the deity, and having been a faithful servant, is enough. Being the last of your kind is probably enough. But something exceptional needs to be involved – otherwise every sentient killed by a PC would inflict a curse!
The intent is not to make Curses as commonplace as the sunrise, but to make them more common, and more significant, than they currently are.
The role of Bestow Curse
Clerics (and other classes with access to clerical spells) can bestow Curses using the clerical spell without all this fuss, because they have been granted the authority by their Deities to act as their representative.
An additional requirement
A Curse cannot be successfully cast on a creature that could somehow benefit from it; if one is, the effects should be reinterpreted by the referee as much as necessary to inflict harm on the target. For example, a Curse which bestows a negative level, when cast on an undead, the referee should treat the ‘negative’ level as a positive one, reducing the number of HD of the target by 1 die, having the same effect that the Curse would have if it was cast on a non-undead creature.
The Nature Of A Curse
Curses come in two varieties: Temporary and Permanent (the latter including Curses of indefinite duration). In general, permanent Curses are less powerful than temporary ones because some of the energy of the Curse is diverted into making it last.
Curses as an Anti-Feat
This requires a standard to be set in terms of the effectiveness of Curses. Fortunately, such a standard already exists, codified to set a standard for the effectiveness of Feats. This standard is common to all my d20 campaigns, and I discussed it – amongst other things – in Exceeding The Extraordinary: The Meaning Of Feats. In a nutshell: A feat can confer +4 to a single specific check, +2 to two related specific checks or one type of saving throw, +1 to four related specific checks or to a single combat-related numeric value, an ability normally useful no more than once per round in combat or a more powerful combat ability that can only be used in specific circumstances or is otherwise constrained, or a non-combat class ability.
It seems entirely reasonable as a basic standard of effectiveness of a Curse to consider it to be an “Anti-feat”.
Relative Strength Of Curses
But there is a caveat: Because of the permanency of the effect, Bestow Curse must necessarily be weaker than other spells of equivalent level. This should be borne in mind by the GM when assessing proposed effects. Even minor curses can be life-threatening if the target never has the chance to remove it, and this should also be a consideration by the GM when adjudicating a Curse.
Most Curses are intended to last, until the subject of the curse has atoned for whatever misdeed prompted the curse. Such curses are the bedrock and standard apon which Curse mechanics are built.
A temporary Curse applies only until the target achieves some specific task, such as a pilgrimage to some specific shrine or temple, or fulfilling three tasks for the high priest of the city.
This alters the effectiveness of the curse by +25%, +0%, -25% or -50%, depending on the difficulty of the task to be achieved.
Until the task is achieved, a Remove Curse will only grant 24 hours relief. The basis of comparison should be the difficulty of completing the task.
- If the difficulty of the task is easier, there should be a +25% increase in the severity of the Curse.
- If about the same, there should be a 0% change.
- If a little harder – the equivalent of obtaining a Remove Curse from a specific priest – then the effectiveness of the Curse should be -25%.
- If a lot harder, then the effectiveness should be reduced 50%.
Sloppy wording of the condition eg “Until you atone for your transgressions” is considered to be equivalent to the default, as it is presumed that a priest will not Remove the Curse until he is satisfied that the character has done so. The final arbiter of any such judgments is the referee.
The subject of these curses can be absolved of the Curse as soon as the specified conditions are met.
Practicality and Idealism
Some Deities are realistic about the conditions to be fulfilled for absolution from a temporary curse, insisting that the condition be within the capabilities of the subject. Others are more idealistic and pay this no attention. The personality and attributes of the deity in question should be reflected in the specifications of the Curse. A curse establishes an extremely personal relationship between the caster, the subject, and the deity, which should be referenced every time the Curse’s effect has an impact on play. It may even be possible for the subject of the curse to pray for temporary relief if that would be in the best interests of the deity. A curse is an ongoing opportunity for roleplaying that should not be wasted.
A little additional ingenuity in the wording of a curse can greatly expand their functionality. “May [Curse] happen if you [do | do not do] X” is a perfectly acceptable syntax – “May your sword arm wither and rot if you betray your oath” for example. Where the “X” is an ongoing task, such as adhering to an oath, this is considered a permanent/indefinite curse which will last until the character is relieved of the obligation; where it is a task with a measurable conclusion, such as “erect the shrine within 30 days” or “place Baron Huschfeld on the throne”, it is a temporary curse.
Removing a Curse
One of the first questions a player will ask when his character is afflicted with a Curse should be “How do I get rid of it?”. Under the standard mechanics for Curses, the question is more likely to be “Where’s the closest cleric with Remove Curse” – assuming that another party member doesn’t have the spell, or even the character himself.
A key aspect of the changes to Curse mechanics is the alleviation of this condition. A Curse should be more significant and less of a passing inconvenience. It’s a third level spell in 3.x (and from memory used to be a 4th level spell in older editions of the game), after all.
There are two conditions under which a Curse can be removed without difficulty, so lets look at those first.
Lifting a Curse
The character who bestowed the Curse can lift it at any time – provided that it was not inflicted as a dying act, of course. Even then, it may be possible – but the difficulties are much greater; the subject can’t exactly intimidate the bestower, after all. However, the third party to the curse should also be involved; blackmailing or threatening the bestower of the Curse will not win any favors with the deity in question, and far from lifting the original curse, the subject may well find himself saddled with a second.
Curses with built-in limited duration conditions are subject to Absolution as soon as the conditions are met. The effects of the curse are lifted immediately, though the curse may be re-imposed if the subject then acts on opposition to the condition. You can’t be cursed until a shrine is built, build the shrine, and then immediately destroy it. You can’t put someone on the throne and then immediately attempt to undermine, usurp, or make the new ruler a figurehead. In other words, the spirit of the curse is just as important as the letter.
To be released from the danger of Re-imposition, the subject requires a priest – any priest or cleric not opposed to the deity who empowered the original Curse – to Absolve the character, ie to acknowledge that he has completed his penance, learned from his mistake, and forgive the original offence. Once this is done, the character is free to act however he sees fit with no sword of Damocles hanging overhead.
This places a reasonable amount of responsibility on the shoulders of clerics and priests, and senility sometimes causes absolution to be granted when it should not be. Religious orders are usually fairly wary of failing faculties and will often retire a priest they suspect of becoming a little vague, because it is their reputation that is on the line.
Absolution can also be granted retrospectively if the subject dies in the attempt to redeem himself.
Absolution & The afterlife
Absolution has a second effect that can be quite significant – it means that the crime for which the curse was imposed can no longer be held against the subject when he enters the afterlife and faces judgment. This can be a significant spur to a character’s decisions. As a character gets older and more aware of their own mortality, some may choose to find a cleric and confess to the worst of their past misdeeds, requesting a curse that permits them to earn absolution before it is too late. Of course, the choice of which Deity from which the character chooses to make this request has a very big bearing on the outcome – and on what is considered a misdeed.
The net effect is that behavior tends becomes more extreme as characters get older. This is especially true of NPCs – PCs generally being less willing to bow to any restrictions on their behavior will tend to take their chances and worry about tomorrow on the day after.
Again, this is a source for a roleplaying encounter or two if the party includes a cleric. An NPC or two seeking absolution makes an excellent subplot and a nice seasoning as a cohort or other follower.
Breaking A Curse
The other way out of a Curse is to Break it. Once broken, a curse can be Removed. Curses can only be broken be a cleric, a deity, or another character type with access to clerical spells.
Breaking a curse is a violent act, as is implied by the name of the process. The act of casting Remove Curse triggers a metaphysical confrontation between the bestower of the curse and the cleric attempting to break it. The former is represented by the DC of the Curse, while the latter is on hand. It should also be obvious that unless the Deity who granted the curse is especially capricious in nature, the cleric must have a different patron to the original deity.
The cleric attempting to break the curse generates a Spellcraft total and compares it to the target DC while casting Remove Curse. If the result is equal to or greater than the DC, the Curse is broken.
If the Curse was bestowed by a Cleric, that cleric should roll a Spellcraft check which becomes the DC for breaking the spell. If the curse was bestowed by someone other than a cleric, the DC is 15. These values may receive a +5 if the Deity bestowing the curse is strongly in favor of the act. Dying-act curses may also receive up to an additional +5. A Curse bestowed directly by a Deity automatically has a DC of 25, plus the +5 for being strongly in favor, for a total of 30. In practice, the average DC is going to be around 20-25.
If the cleric attempting to break the Curse is of the same alignment as the original bestower, he receives a -5 to his Spellcraft check to Break the curse. If he is of an opposed alignment, he receives a +5. This means that the best person to break a curse from an Evil deity is a cleric of Good, and vice-versa.
Despite antagonistic alignments, deities may refuse to break a Curse if there is presently no strife between them and the deity who empowered the original Curse. Breaking someone else’s curse is a hostile act, and earns the enmity of the deity who imposed it. Some people will attempt to boost their chances by stirring up rivalries and ill-will in advance – but this can in itself be a dangerous business; if the deity being beseeched was offended by the actions of the subject, they may add a curse of their own to the mix.
Failure is a definite set-back – each cleric gets only one shot at a Curse at the original DC. If they fail, they can’t try again until they have gained another level as a clerical spell user, and there is a -2 penalty to their Spellcraft check for each failure. It only takes a few failures for the DC to exceed the capabilities of the cleric, effectively permanently. This encourages those wishing to break a Curse to seek out the highest-ranking cleric they can find – and those fellows usually charge a lot of money for their time and effort.
Being Cursed by two deities of antagonistic alignment at the same time is the worst of all possible outcomes, because clerics of either alignment will recognize the ‘taint’ of the Curse to which they are not antagonistic and refuse to aid the character. Characters who are subject to multiple Curses are in real trouble even if the cleric agrees to make the attempt, as the cleric’s target DC is the sum of the DCs of BOTH curses, which usually puts the target beyond the abilities of all but the most powerful.
Curses and Spell Focus
Spell Focus can be used to raise the spell’s save DC, unlike most Necromantic Spells. It follows that there are three groups whose Curses are especially potent, and hence exceptionally difficult to break: Deities, the High Priest or Archprelate of a particular faith, and clerics who specialize in bestowing Curses.
Spell Focus can also be employed to assist in Breaking a curse.
Inheriting A Curse
If a deity or the beseeching individual is especially put out, they may choose to make a Curse generational, affecting not only the subject but their entire family, or their first-born in each successive generation, or all their descendants of a particular gender, or all their descendants, or all their relatives. This sacrifices some of the DC for breaking the Curse in exchange for generalizing the target.
- Entire Family (by blood): -2
- First-born descendant each generation: -4
- All descendants of a particular gender: -6
- All descendants: -8
- All relatives now living and their descendants: -10
- Excluding the original target: +1 (offsets the above modifiers only)
Detecting A Curse
Detecting the presence of a Curse is easy – just cast the first level spell. Clerics can even make a WIS check while holding the hand or blessing a character to get a hint that the character has either been cursed themselves or that they have been associating with someone who has been, especially if the effects of a Curse have actually affected the person being examined. The DC of such a Wisdom check is 40 minus the DC for breaking the spell – so the hardest Curses to break are the most easily detected.
Identifying the specifics of a Curse is equally easy, once the presence of a Curse is proven (not merely suspected). It merely requires the cleric or religious figure – a Paladin can do it – to pray over the character for a while. The number of hours of prayer required is equal to the DC of detecting the Curse as specified in the previous paragraph.
While being examined, the subject of the investigation must not perform any activity that would require a skill check, and must not do anything relating to a deity other than the one being invoked during the investigation. Priests, Clerics, and Paladins will normally insist on Blessing the character before commencing, simply to remove any spiritual “aftertaste” of other deities that the subject might have with him. It is also normal for the subject to remove all magic items and clothing, wearing only a simple penitent’s robe – essentially, a smock of cotton, wool, or burlap – for the same reason. Individual faiths may have further requirements, but for most these are sufficient.
As the prayers continue, the Minister conducting the prayer service will begin to sense the intensity of the Curse (ie, how difficult it will be to break), the name of the Deity who granted the Curse, the nature of the curse’s effects, any conditions attached to the Curse, and finally the reason for the curse – the deed that caused the subject to be Cursed in the first place. Only when all of these are known and acknowledged by the subject can the process of Breaking the curse begin.
“I curse this weapon. Any who claim it will be driven to avenge me.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with using a desirable weapon with a curse attached as a plot device. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a magic item. Once the Curse is complete, the character gets the weapon. If he should fall in the process, it will wait for the next person to come along and take his place – however long it takes.
Such curses are not part of the weapon, they merely use it as a conduit, but they will still be detected by a Detect Curse spell. However, even putting such a weapon into a backpack or other storage device with the intent to sell or analyze it later is enough to invoke the curse, and actually selling it does not relieve the curse, simply passes the potential to another like a time bomb with no visible timer. Only when the PC succeeds or dies will it go off.
Such curses have to be broken not once, but twice. The first time breaks the curse on the character, freeing him, but leaving the curse itself lurking intact within the item. The second Breaking must be directed at the weapon itself. This circumstance is the only exception to the rule about multiple attempts at breaking a curse, since the second Curse Breaking can only proceed after the success of the first. That still does not grant multiple attempts at breaking either curse, it only permits a single attempt at Un-cursing the item once a religious figure has successfully broken the hold of the curse on an individual.
Note, also, that the item must be present to be prayed over in order to break the curse within it.
Sneaky Moral Tricks
PCs will already be wary of treasures after players read the above section. At the same time, the potential for a desirable weapon with a built-in mini-quest would have to be tempting, if the item is attractive enough. The problem is that characters have to “buy” the item before they get to inspect the merchandise – or, in this case, accept the curse before knowing how useful the treasure will be. Alignment questions can also become entwined in the whole issue – a character can break the curse but still be compelled by his alignment to complete the task that would have nullified it.
More subtle variations
If the GM suspects that even this might not be tolerable by his players – contrary creatures at the best of times – he can place am item with a more subtle Curse, for example a temporary curse that only affects the character when he scores a critical hit – or when her is subjected to a critical hit – or when he uses a specific skill or ability. How tempting would a +4 or +5 weapon or suit of armor be, even with such a price-tag? And if the player is truly unhappy with the price tag, he can always expend money in attempts to break the curse; either way, the GM gets a plotline out of the deal.
A list of suggested Curses
I’m going to close this article with a long list of suggested curses. These should be just a starting point for your creativity… Have fun out there!
- -3 penalty to the three physical characteristics (STR, DEX, CON) or -3 penalty to the three mental/emotional abilities (INT, WIS, DEX).
- -1 penalty on all characteristics.
- -4 to one particular variety of Saving Throw (Fort, Reflex, or Will).
- -8 to saves against a particular magic descriptor.
- All spells cast by the target henceforth have an additional material component of 25xp per spell level.
- The Cursed creature cannot speak except to cast spells.
- -8 to all skill checks tied to a single specific ability.
- -4 penalty to all skill checks.
- -12 penalty to all skill checks against a single specific skill.
- -4 ‘clumsiness’ penalty to AC.
- -6 ‘clumsiness’ penalty to all attack rolls.
- Save DCs against the Cursed creature’s spells or innate abilities are reduced by 4.
- The creature cannot declare any creatures to be allies for the purposes of flanking, moving through squares, spell effects, etc.
- Every 2nd attack made by the subject creature must be against an ally. The subject will drop his weapon to change to a ranged weapon and/or move up to his maximum as necessary to achieve this.
- -3 penalty to all attack and damage rolls.
- The creatures damaging spells only inflict half damage.
- The creature cannot confirm critical hits.
- The cursed creature always receives the minimum healing from spells.
- The character loses all special sight (low-light vision, darkvision, etc) and is immune to any spells which bestow such abilities.
- The target cannot make attacks of opportunity.
- The target suffers 1hp of sonic damage every round that someone within 30′ speaks, per speaker.
- The target can no longer cast spells with an alignment descriptor (any alignment descriptor).
- Any time the creature rolls a 1 in melee combat, he must make a reflex save against DC 14 or drop any and all weapons used in the attack.
- The target cannot heal wounds except by magic.
- The target cannot eat or drink and therefore cannot benefit from magical potions or effects like Heroes Feast.
- The target loses the ability to read.
- The target cannot use any Metamagic Feats.
- The target is affected by a Nightmare spell (Caster Level 9) every night.
- The target loses all armor proficiencies.
- The target loses all weapon proficiencies.
- The target must make a Balance check at DC 15 to move more than half its speed in a round.
- Every time the target uses a charged item, he causes the item to expend an additional d6 charges to no effect.
- Every time the target uses a charged item, he causes the item to expend an additional charge which is inflicted apon himself.
- All possible critical hits against the target are automatically confirmed.
- Ability damage inflicted against the character is treated as ability drain.
- The target is denied its Dexterity bonus to armor class.
- The target is Slowed whenever it is within an enemy’s threatened squares.
- Allies must defeat SR 21 to target the Cursed Creature with spells.
- Making a single attack becomes a full-round action for the target. The target cannot make iterative attacks or attacks with two weapons.
- Any time takes damage (magical or otherwise) from flame or heat (including Fireballs, etc), the character catches on fire (refer DMG for consequences).
- The character suffers from a phobia or fear. Whenever the object of the phobia or fear is encountered or threatens the character, he must make a Will save against a DC of 15 or cower in fear. If the save succeeds, the character is Shaken. Phobias include darkness, open spaces, confined spaces, heights, depths, running water, open water, thunderstorms, spiders, undead, insects, birds, dragons, etc etc.
- In melee, the subject of the Curse cannot move to flee or threaten another creature (but can attack any enemies that move into its threat range).
- All allies of the target suffer a -2 on attack rolls and skill checks when within 60′ of the target.
- The character’s ranged attacks are limited to a single range band.
- The character suffers -4 caster levels (to a minimum of 1).
- The character must eat 4 times as much food as normal in order to survive (but gains weight as though they did not). If the character fails to eat sufficient food, he is considered to suffer from Starvation.
- The character must drink 8 times as much water as normal. If he does not, he is considered to be suffering from Dehydration.
- The character loses up to four magic item slots. Items in those slots have no effect. The caster of the Curse must specify the slots using a single word description.
- Whenever the target strikes an opponent in melee combat, he suffers 1d6 damage (doubled if the character achieves a critical hit).
- The target’s Spell Resistance (if any) is reduced by 4 points.
- The creature bleeds at the rate of 1hp per round per dice of damage inflicted in melee.
- The creature is required to provide an attack of opportunity each time he takes a 5′ step in melee.
- The creature earns only 75% of the experience they would normally receive.
- The target suffers 1d6 damage per round that they hold or touch a particular type of weapon or object.
- The target suffers 2d6 damage per round that they hold or touch a specific weapon or object.
- The target experiences the effects of a Polymorph spell for approximately half a day, every day. The caster of the Curse must specify either a daily trigger event (eg midnight, noon, dawn, sunset, moonrise, moonset) or specific time interval with a one-word description (eg daytime, nighttime) or other similar condition which activates the Curse. The character acts as a normal member of the population of his Polymorphed form would but remembers his actions in that form when he is restored to normal. The other form must be of a half-hit-dice creature or less.
- The target experiences the effects of a Polymorph spell for approximately 1/4 of the time, as specified by the caster of the Curse. These must be linked to a particular season, phase of the moon, or other such naturally-recurring phenomenon. While in his other form, the target acts as a hostile member of the population of that form. The other form must be of a 1-hit-dice creature or less.
- The target experiences the effects of a Polymorph spell for 1 hour after experiencing a specified common event of activity. The character acts as a rabid or extremely hostile member of the population of that form. The other form must be of a 2-hit-dice creature or less.
- The target spends any money that comes into his possession (above 25 GP per character level) as quickly as possible. He must make a will save against a DC of 20 to refuse any offered item. He cannot give this money away, or tithe it, or give it to someone else for safekeeping, or store it.
- The target spends any money that comes into his possession (above 100 GP per character level) as quickly as possible. He must make a will save against a DC of 20 to refuse any offered item. He cannot give this money away, or tithe it, or give it to someone else for safekeeping, or store it. He must immediately sell any magic items he possesses whose values exceed this limit.
One Final Mention
One final thought that’s worth mentioning, and which has also had its part to play in inspiring some of the content above: a slight reimagining of the Curse of Edaemus from The Shining Ones by David Eddings, (Book 2 of The Tamuli). Edaemus cursed the waters of the lake where his people lived, which already caused them to glow, so that their touch inflicted the rot of the grave in mere seconds AND gave them a telepathic link to those they could see. In time, they learned to control these ‘gifts’ – but consider the horror of the situation before they did. They not only caused sufficient fear in those who beheld them to provoke insanity and gibbering in terror, the telepathic link meant that they would have felt every moment of their victim’s pain and terror, and feel the rotting of tissues as the curse manifested.
Talk about your Gothic Fantasy! That’s the power of a well-constructed curse to add flavor…