This post arose from a conversation on social media a few weeks ago on the topic of cursed items in D&D. I don’t think I’ve used a cursed item in any of my games for 20 years or more, not since I first started playing AD&D in ancient times. The reason is that I just don’t like how cursed items work in D&D – they’re merely a “gotcha.” They’re a way to ensure that players never experiment with mysterious objects, wondering what they do – they quarantine them until someone can find a 100gp pearl and let the Wizard sit down and identify them.
And that simply isn’t fun, at least not for me.
The cursed items that come to mind for me impose some kind of disadvantage or unwanted change on a character, and are of course always difficult to remove, requiring a remove curse spell or something equivalent. There’s just nothing interesting about that, in the game or in the story. As DM, I have innumerable ways to challenge or inconvenience the PCs without having to resort to a Girdle of Gender Change or a helmet you can’t take off.
So it got me thinking, and talking, and I came up with two categories of cursed items that are interesting: cursed items that tempt, and cursed items for evil characters.
Tempting Cursed Items
Why would an item have a curse on it? Presumably because a powerful evil spellcaster put the curse on it, or because the item was used to do something heinous and this event left a stain of some sort on it. Here I’m thinking of dragon-gold in Middle-Earth causing dragon-sickness, or the Spear of Longinus. In either case, the curse has a purpose aside from inconveniencing and frustrating the person who finds the item.
My favorite example of an item that is cursed in an interesting way is also a trope – the sword that cannot be sheathed until it draws blood. This is a good cursed item because it encourages a certain kind of behavior. You could easily imagine a sword used to betray a brother, for example, that now thirsts for blood. This is interesting to me because it provides a mechanical bonus – it is still a magical sword, and maybe even deals bonus damage – but it also tempts the character to behave in morally questionable ways. Maybe she draws the sword to threaten someone during a tense scene, and then realizes that she now has to wound someone before she can sheathe it.
“Cursed” Items for Evil Characters
This kind of cursed item simply comes from a reversal of assumptions, using the same principle above. An evil blackguard finds a healing potion that refills itself, but only when he makes a donation and receives a blessing at a shrine of the God of Healing. Or maybe he finds a shield that makes him impervious to arrows, but only if he has no weapon in his hand and deals no damage.
In this case, the magic item is still useful, which is key, but the ‘cost’ of using it is engaging in benevolent, or at least restrained, behavior. These could even be holy artifacts never meant to be carried by the evil folks who now have them, and so the beneficial effects built into the items are glitches for their new owner. From the examples above, the shield could have originally been the Shield of Reconciliation, created to enable diplomats and negotiators to safely cross a battlefield without being shot so that they could try to end the battle with diplomacy.
At Cross Purposes
As a thought experiment to get you mind running, imagine holy artifacts and benevolent magic items that would cause problems when used by evil characters. Perhaps the item only grants a benefit when defending someone else, or it has to be recharged by some benevolent action. Think of something that would be useful for a good person, but limit an evil person’s choices.
From the other side, imagine evil artifacts that would cause moral quandaries for a wielder who is neutral or good. Perhaps a weapon that always deals bonus poison damage, but therefore cannot be used to deal non-lethal damage, or a bow that always seeks out a target’s vitals, meaning if the archer critically fails, she’s likely to shoot an ally in the heart.
Feel free to comment with your ideas for “cursed” items in D&D.