It’s D&D night, and the party just found a dagger. Its blade bends like a jagged ‘S’ shape, and its crossguard resembles a toothy smile. Entirely brass-colored, it’s eerily beautiful. It has a +1 to attack and damage rolls, its base damage is 2d4, and when the attuned wielder lands a critical hit with it, the target must succeed on a Wisdom saving throw or become frightened of them. The air around the wielder is filled with unintelligible whispering once they draw the dagger. Before we continue, what are the purposes of cursed items? How should they be used?
Cursed items are objects of power that negatively affect the user against their will. Sometimes a cursed item provides a tempting benefit along with the negative effect, or it influences the user’s mind to make them unwilling to part with it. Sometimes, the curse doesn’t bother the user at all or can be used to their benefit.
The wielder of the above dagger just so happens to be my rogue. Despite the DM forcing me to make a Charisma saving throw every long rest since it was found, my abnormal luck has allowed me to use it consequence-free for months.
I’m excited to find out how it kicks my ass once the luck runs out – and that’s exactly the feeling you want to evoke from your players.
A powerful weapon that punishes the wielder for not feeding it the souls of sentient beings (by killing them with it) often enough is a problem for a Player Character (PC) who only uses violence as a last resource.
The chaotic evil barblock (barbarian + warlock) Jebediah wouldn’t struggle to keep such a wicked weapon content. Another evil character might have it dispelled and molten for daring to make demands of them, even though they aren’t exactly paragons of virtue.
In any case, a cursed item isn’t just a way for the DM to say “screw you” to a player through the medium of game mechanics. Using them like this is adversarial and toxic.
Penalties, setbacks, and complications like those derived from a cursed item can be fun and dramatic, spicing up the gameplay and providing roleplay opportunities. In this article, you’ll learn all about it.
How to Include Cursed Items in Your Game
A good cursed item creates a problem that even its victim can find entertaining.
Whether it’s a minor speed bump or a massive mountain, it can complicate the user’s journey in ways both mechanical and narrative. It can provide story threads to follow and prompt character-defining choices, opening the party to new and exciting places as they seek to end the terrible curse.
If the cursed item also comes with powerful boons—and I believe the best ones do—it adds a layer of complexity to the game as its user has to ponder whether the reward is worth the risk. Bonus points if spending more time with it increases the risk, much like The Imago Sequence.
With all of that in mind, here are some questions to ask yourself before bringing a cursed item into your game:
- Who is it intended for? Ideally, when you introduce the item, you have a good idea of who’s going to spring for it, or you’ve tailored it so that it fits your target’s playstyle like a glove.
- A creepy dagger for the rogue who’s getting reckless as they become more powerful, perhaps?
- Or a mighty axe containing the soul of a crazed murderer for the righteous paladin who looks down on everyone else for not living up to their standards?
- What are the stakes? What does the bearer of the cursed item stand to lose as a result of using it? They could die if the curse hinders their combat prowess, but there are other, worse things to lose. Their mind, their memories, their morals, their loved ones, etc.
- Does the curse have a stopping point? A weapon made to slay a particular foe might self-destruct once that’s taken care of, for instance.
- How much narrative weight will it have? Consider the above example. Maybe said cursed weapon is the only thing in existence capable of slaying a powerful celestial. The PCs could spend many sessions searching for it, knowing that it will subject one of them to terrible consequences. Nobody has stepped forward to wield it yet. If someone did, they likely have a strong reason for it.
- Alternatively, it could be something frivolous and fun. For example, there’s a breastplate that makes the wearer vulnerable to damage. It was commissioned long ago by a young prince who wished to be king and gifted it to his older brother to get him killed during a fighting tournament. The PCs find it in a dragon’s hoard, and the fighter puts it on. If they survive their first fight wearing it, and the party figures out what’s going on, they might just dump it or save it for an enemy.
- How can the PCs detect the curse? This is a tad more complicated. Check out the section below dedicated to this question.
- How can they get rid of the curse? Likewise, check out the section below.
Types of Cursed Items
Some curses arise spontaneously (from strong negative emotions), some are the work of a devious crafter, but all of them have an ultimate purpose. There are even those whose curse remains dormant until triggered by specific circumstances.
A cursed item’s purpose and properties are a product of its backstory. The breastplate from the last example seeks to get the wearer killed, whoever they are. It has no end.
There are many reasons why a cursed item could come to be, and we could probably spend hours expanding the following list, but it covers most cases:
- Discharge: the item has soaked in malevolent energies due to some terrible event, and attuning to it opens a pathway for this malevolent energy to flow into the user. It may slowly turn the user into stone, subject them to possession by the mad spirit haunting it, make them sick, brittle their bones, etc.
- Prank/Hindrance: The item was made as a prank and is meant to irritate and inconvenience, sometimes quite harshly. Fey pranks are no trifling matter, for instance, and they’re not the only beings with wicked senses of humor. Such an item could, among other things:
- Distort one’s perception of reality, like everyone is flirting with you, or a man is watching you from behind a corner at all times;
- Provoke strange cravings and urges, like drinking gutter water or scratching yourself to the point it bleeds;
- Do exactly the opposite of what you think it does.
- Be useful in combat the first time you use it, then turn against you every time after that.
- Punishment: An item that reacts negatively to a particular behavior or set of behaviors, like a sword that flies off your hands and turns against you if you use it against members of a specific bloodline.
- In a high-magic setting, an enchanter might place such curses on his wares as theft deterrents: a magical necklace that shrinks and chokes anyone other than its legal owner who puts it on; a sword that wraps around the thief’s arm, then goes white-hot and doesn’t let go until they’re dead.
- Revenge: The item came to be with the express purpose of destroying someone or something in particular. A famous example is the Sword of Kas and its obsession with destroying Vecna and all that relates to him. Many beings that came into power through violence may provoke the emergence of such cursed items or prompt people to make them.
- Maybe the last priest of an eradicated religion sacrifices himself to create something that will bring down the empire that caused this. There are many options. In the case of vengeful items, I think it either arises spontaneously from the extreme emotions of someone slain or is created through self-sacrifice by someone powerful.
- The cursed armor example from before doesn’t fit here, as it wasn’t made by someone with intense hatred burning in them, nor powered by sacrifice. It’s an impersonal tool, with a commercial transaction between it and the goal intended by the young prince, who was driven by power lust rather than hatred.
By now, you’ve likely gleaned that I’m a fan of sentient cursed items. This is another category that can apply to any of the above cursed item types. It helps generate flavorful roleplay and might even be a way to deliver important information.
Frighten Your Players
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Everyone holds their breath—except you, the DM. You enjoy watching them sweat as tension comes to a head.
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Sample Cursed Item Effects
We’ve talked about the types of cursed items as defined by their motives, but there are many ways such motives can translate into game-mechanic content. I have listed some useful ones:
- Beacon: The item broadcasts the user’s location to some evil entity that might do them harm or makes it harder for them to conceal themselves (from something specific or in general).
- Bodysnatching: The mind in the object takes over the user’s body. What happens to the original mind/soul varies: outright destruction, banishment to another plane, imprisonment within the object, etc.
- Corruption: The user’s personality is warped by the foul magic of the object, making them worse versions of themselves, possibly changing their alignment. They become cruel, greedy, treacherous, or whatever you like.
- Draining: Some quantifiable aspect of the user’s being is drained, maybe steadily over time, possibly via saving throws (that may be increasingly difficult). The black iron circlet they put on for the bonus to their necromancy spell DCs is slowly eating their hit points; the ring doubling their Persuasion proficiency bonus is slowly taking away their Insight skill, so they’re less able to see if they were actually successful.
- Death: A possible result of the other effects and something that can be brought about directly by a cursed item. An extremely powerful sword that requires a successful DC 20 Wisdom saving throw to draw out of its scabbard without dying; A dagger that kills anything it reduces to single-digit hit points but gives the user disadvantage on death saves.
- Imprisonment: the item somehow imprisons the user, be it their soul or body. A cursed gem might suck into it the soul of any unfortunate creature that touches it and fails a Charisma saving throw, for instance.
- Transformation: the item physically changes the user. It can be a gradual version of true polymorph, a longer petrification process, instantaneously aging 50 years, etc.
Identifying Cursed Items
Most methods of identifying items, including the Identify spell, fail to reveal such a curse, although lore might hint at it. A curse should be a surprise to the item’s user when the curse’s effects are revealed.Dungeon Master’s Guide, pg139
The above is the official stance from the core rules. It makes sense that someone cursing an item in a world where Identify exists would endeavor to keep it hidden from arcane prying. Harder to argue that spontaneous magic brought about by catastrophe would be similarly stealthy.
There is also the matter that giving the PCs no chance to avert the threat of a cursed item feels adversarial and “unsportsmanlike”.
The crux of the problem is that simply letting the PCs avoid any threat by casting a 1st level ritual spell is cheap and essentially removes the danger from these ruinous objects.
How, then, do we deal with this issue? Let’s start by “although lore might hint at it.” I think this alone makes the Legend Lore spell a valid way to find out if some clearly special item the party has acquired bears a curse.
A killer History check from a PC proficient in it, even Religion, on occasion, could bring to mind some troubling information about the item, too.
What about Arcana? Well, that’s how Identify becomes relevant again. We’re delving into homebrew and houseruling territory now, kids. To give PCs a chance to find out that an item is cursed, you can add the following to the description of the Identify spell for your group:
As part of this spell’s casting, you may choose to make an Arcana check to look for hidden magic such as curses. If there is anything of the sort, the DM has a DC written down that your check must beat to reveal the hidden magic.Leonardo Andrade
Here’s a quick primer on skill check DCs (full article here):
- Very easy: 5
- Easy: 10
- Medium: 15
- Hard: 20
- Very hard: 25
- Nearly impossible: 30
I wouldn’t go below 15 with the curse detection DCs, however.
You may also allow the PCs to boost their check by upcasting Identify: +1 per spell slot level above 1st. It’s only fair that spending more resources wields better results.
There is a 3rd level spell called Remove Curse, but the name is misleading: this spell severs the connection between the cursed item and the afflicted, but the curse remains. This spell only makes it safe to separate it from whoever attuned to it.
Some cursed items specify particular spells that can get rid of the curse for good, like Wish for the super powerful stuff. Destroying the item might be an option, too. Dump it in strong acid, throw it in a volcano, get a powerful being to break it for you, or whatever you like.
A long-winded, highly-specific ritual that must be assembled from scattered bits of lore can make for quite a bit of adventuring, too, as does helping the cursed item achieve its goal. Imagine negotiating with a sentient, vengeful cursed item: your aid in destroying its target in exchange for their everlasting service.
The way curse-breaking happens in The Witcher 3 is also a good template.
Looking to challenge your players?
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Can Player Characters Make Cursed Items?
While there are no official rules for it, there is also no official statement saying it’s impossible.
So it is possible but requires homebrewing (full article on that here).
The rules for making magic items in general (DMG, pg 129; Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, pgs 128-129) don’t translate perfectly into curse-crafting, but they work as a jumping-off point.
First, let’s acknowledge that to curse something isn’t the same as merely enchanting it. There’s subterfuge, ill-intent, and strong feelings in the mix.
In any game I run, a sacrifice of some sort is indispensable for creating a powerful cursed item. When you impart a strong curse into an object, you lose something of yourself or commit an atrocity to power the magic.
I also think that seeking outlandish components from dangerous places to use in the curse-crafting ritual is neat.
Now, let’s look at some magic item crafting guidelines from XGE:
- Uncommon: 1 workweek to make, 50 gp cost.
- Common: 2 workweeks, 200 gp
- Rare: 10 workweeks, 2,000 gp.
- Very rare: 25 workweeks, 20,000 gp.
- Legendary: 50 workweeks, 100,000 gp.
I would argue that cursed objects are necessarily more expensive and work-intensive to make, so you can add 50% to the above costs depending on how powerful the object is and what the enticing visible properties it has are.
Some of this cost can be mitigated by acquiring the more expensive components yourself, like a gallon of adult black dragon acid in its liquid state.
Or, maybe, the costs are about what it would cost to build an appropriate ritual site with workers who’ll speak not a word of it and fill it with people to be sacrificed en masse, Full Metal Alchemist style. Who knows?
Finally, a check with the cursecrafter’s spellcasting modifier, possibly enhanced by buffs or additional preparations, sets the detection DC of the curse if you go for my above Identify homebrew idea.
Now that this bedeviled article has come to an end, go and make terrible things with what you have learned here. As always, here are the key takeaways:
- Cursed items are objects of power that negatively affect the user against their will.
- Most cursed items provide benefits that make them tempting or pose as something safe to fool people.
- Some cursed items are sentient; they make for great roleplaying moments.
- Cursed item motivations: revenge, pranking, punishment, discharging absorbed bad juju.
- RAW, curses on items are mostly impossible to detect. But “lore might hint at it,” so Legend Lore can help on occasion, as well as the History and Religion skills.
- You can homebrew a curse detection function by using an Arcana check into Identify.
- Remove Curse and Dispel Magic don’t remove curses from items. Remove Curse temporarily severs the connection between the item and the user, but the curse remains.
- Wish can remove a curse from an item. Sometimes, destroying the item works, too, though it’s not necessarily easy. Other ways are things like rituals or helping the item fulfill its purpose.
- There are no specific rules for PCs crafting magic items, but it’s also not explicitly forbidden, so PCs can do it, but homebrewing is required.
- Cursing an item should be harder and more expensive than simply enchanting it.