Messing With Your Players – The Art of the Cursed Item

Image by: I’m Fantastic

I was driving to school with my wife today, complaining about the fact that it’s April 1st, the day where the entire Internet somehow thinks that it’s funny. Fake product announcements, mis-directing URLs, yuck. She suggested that I write a different kind of April Fool’s post, and I thought it was a great idea. So, if you’re running a game tonight, listen up: this post is for you.

The truly fine art…

Messing with your players takes a gentle hand. It’s not as easy as fudging a die roll and telling them that they’ve fallen into a pit trap. That kind of stuff is just bad GMing. If that’s your game, then there’s nothing to see here. Move along. If, however, you want to make them squirm a bit, if you want to poke them in the squishy bits and see them jump, if you want the chance to cackle out of character, then take their favorite toys and make them go sideways on your players: curse them.

Cursed items are something that seem to have gone out of style, at least as far as my knowledge of recent games goes. I’d wager that it’s part of the movement that tabletop games are taking towards video games. After all, how many games can your remember where your character picks up something that’s bad for them? Too damn few, that’s how many. But just as a well-designed character has flaws and brings flavor to a game, a well-designed cursed item can do the same.

For me, cursed items fall into three categories: The Inconvenient, The Bizarre, and The This-Will-Fuck-You-Up. Let’s explore them, shall we?

The Inconvenient

These are the cursed items that are probably both the most common, and the easiest to hide from a player. Let’s say a player identifies a ring as one that will raise their AC by 2, but it’s secretly cursed. Unless they start to suspect something and investigate further, then it’s unlikely that they’ll figure out that the ring really lowered their AC by 2. I played a character for 6 months of  real time and never realized that is exactly what had happened to me. It wasn’t until I found a better item and tried to remove the cursed one that I figured it out.

These kinds of items can be subtle, so work with them. My favorite example of a cursed item that sounds awesome and quickly move to inconvenient is from The Ruins of Undermountain: the always-ready sword. When Detect Magic is cast upon this shining blade, it appears to be a regular +1 longsword. The problem is, once you take it in hand, every time you go to use your sword hand for, well, anything, the blade appears in your hand. Need to use a club to take out a skeleton? Too bad, the blade appears instead. Trying to caress the face of your beloved? Sorry, sword-bladed! Want to raise a tankard to celebrate an accord reached at a weapons-free meeting of enemies? Well, you just broke the peace treaty. It doesn’t matter how far away you leave the sword, it always comes back. Try to sell it, see what happens when the merchant finds it’s gone.

Inconvenient cursed items are a broad category and can accomplish a lot of frustrating things. They also dovetail quite nicely with the next category.

The Bizarre

These are the strange ones. Bizarre curse effects range from changing the user’s skin blue or green, to preventing from saying certain phrases, to having a legion of small toads following you wherever you go. Anything that you, the GM can think of is pretty much fair game if it’s strange enough. You want a character to have bubbles come out of their mouth every time they speak? Done. Maybe you think that every time they pass gas it should be accompanied by the sound of an angelic fanfare.

My all-time favorite Bizarre item is a D&D classic: the Belt of Masculinity/Femininity. It’s a simple item, but it can really send players for a loop. Put succinctly, if you put it on, your sex changes from male to female, or vice-versa. If you, the GM, desire it to be the case, their gender can change as well. If you don’t understand the distinction, don’t bother with it. The reason this messes can mess with a player so badly is that, whether they realize it or not, a lot of a character’s identity is tied up in their sex. Imagine if it just happened to you one day; it’s a bit of a freak-out, no?

The trick with the Bizarre items is to not take things too far. It’s really easy to have a Bizarre curse become Inconvenient, or worse (if you don’t intend it) to become part of the This-Will-Fuck-You-Up class.

This-Will-Fuck-You-Up

There cursed items are an order of magnitude worse than the ones we’ve been talking about. These are the ones that have the potential to kill a character, or that character’s party members, quickly. We’re talking about swords that turn you into a crazy berserker with a +4 to attack and damage rolls, the ring that drains the Intelligence of your Wizard to the point that he can barely tie his shoes, the amulet of water breathing that makes sure that you can breathe only water. These items are almost out of the bounds of an April Fool’s joke. They can really alter the way your party operates, and can even break your game if you’re not careful.

Items like this require a mature group of players, ones who are out to have a good time telling a story together, not ones that always feel the need to have their characters be awesome, or worse yet, “win the game.” If you have players that can’t handle bad things happening to their characters, then stay away from this section.

The best items of this category are those that act as a double-edges sword. Take the cursed, berserking sword I mentioned above. What if that sword has an ability that the party can use to accomplish their goals? Is it worth it to use the sword even though it might make your most powerful fighter flip out and kill the rest of the party? Is the trade-off worth it? The key to making items like these is balance: make the good side too good, and the curse won’t mean anything. Make the curse too bad, and the party will never use them.

You know what your players can take. If you don’t have the type of group that will enjoy these kinds of twists, then don’t use them. If, however, you want to be a little (more) evil as a GM, if you want to really celebrate April Fool’s Day, then think of something bad that you can give to your players. If done properly, you can create a memorable session and maybe even spawn some new plot hooks. Have fun!

[tags]rpg, Gming, April Fools[/tags]

5 thoughts on “Messing With Your Players – The Art of the Cursed Item

Add yours

  1. My first character had a +4 sword of cowardice. Deadly as all get out, but would scream and try to wrench itself out of your grasp during combat. If he failed a STR during combat, suddenly it was time for unarmed combat. not to mention the wandering monsters that its crying and whimpering attracted.

    good times

    Like

  2. I fondly remember a magical knife I introduced to one of my groups. Wickle was a +2 blad that could shoot lightning 3 times a day on command. The only problem was, folks who spoke the command had a 25% chance of going completely berserk.

    In one memorable campaign a mid-level fighter ended up taking on (and somehow winning) a very surprised sea serpent with only Wickle and a ferocious temper.

    Like

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