5 Ways to Improve Curses in D&D

5 Ways to Improve Curses in D&D

By Luke Hart

I once rewarded my Sword Coast Guard players with Drown, a legendary magical trident from the Princes of the Apocalypse module. It gave the user +1 to attack, an extra 1d8 cold damage, resistance to cold damage, the ability to cast dominate monster, and the ability to speak Aquan. Now, sure, the last one is mostly useless, but the other benefits are pretty darn good.

However, there was a catch: Drown had a flaw; it was cursed. It would make its wielder covetous or greedy, and barnacles would form on their skin. But that’s it. Nothing too dramatic or crazy—certainly no debilitating game mechanics that would prevent the character using it from taking names and kicking butt.

And yet, my players discussed for all of one minute before they decided to just sell it to a merchant in Waterdeep. Or hold on to it to trade with someone they didn’t like. You see, none of them wanted barnacles on their skin, and none of them wanted to become greedy.

Now, you might say that was just my players or just a one-off occurrence, or the fact that it was a trident—who uses tridents, right? However, my experience with curses in D&D has mostly tracked with that example: curses in the game almost always fall flat.

So, today we’re going to discuss why curses are a fairly crappy game mechanic in D&D and how we can make them better. Because, you know, if we don’t talk about how to improve them, what’s the point?

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Why Curses Suck

Reason Number 1: They Are Pointless!

If players know about the curse in advance (such as if identify reveals there is a curse), they just don’t use or attune to the item. So, if, as DM, you allow identify or mundane examination over a short rest (which core rules also say can ID an item) to reveal a curse, you are mostly just opening and praying they don’t cast that spell or they don’t otherwise identify what the magic item is before equipping it or attuning to it.

Of course, a clever, experienced DM knows this is the way of things, so they are one step ahead of their players. They do NOT allow identify or mundane examination over a short rest. Then, players don’t know until they equip or attune and are cursed. Aha! You got them. Until they turn to the wizard who can cast remove curse, just a 3rd-level spell that the wizard gets at 5th level. Or they go to town and pay an NPC to cast remove curse because players get lots of gold, and there’s not much else to spend it on. Then they take it off. So, it’s just a temporary speed bump and annoyance to the players.

Reason Number 2: They Are a ‘Gotcha’ Mechanic

I hate gotcha mechanics. Classic “rocks fall, you die,” only instead, “you’re cursed, you suck.”

Traps are another classic gotcha mechanic, but with traps, there are things we can do to make them much better and far more interesting for our players. For instance, I have a click rule that when someone sets off a trap, I just say click, or the floor moved a little, or that they spotted something out of the corner of their eye. Then, they have an opportunity to describe what they do in response, and based on what they do, they might get advantage or disadvantage on the trap. Of course, they also have the opportunity to disable the trap, but that’s for another post.

By the way, if you’re interested in how to make and run traps in a way that makes them more fun for you and your players, check out my D&D Trap Creation playlist

Reason Number 3: They Don't Make the Game Any More Fun or Interesting for the GM or Players

Ask yourself: Is it fun for players when they get a curse they couldn’t avoid? Is it fun for a DM to slip an item into the game only to have it be discarded or sold? Reference how I felt when my players didn’t care about Drown.

How to Make Curses Better

Part of me feels that the real reason we have curses in D&D games these days is the same reason we have alignment: they’ve just been in the game since the beginning, and no one has gotten around to expunging them—or improving them. Of course, WOTC is well on its way to getting rid of alignment. In fact, I’ll call it now: the 6th edition of D&D—what they are calling One D&D in an effort to not have 5e sales tank—will remove alignment from the game. You see, alignment is a troublesome mechanic that seems to cause a lot of outrage on social media platforms like Twitter. So, it’s for sure gone.

However, what about curses? Is it possible for us to cause enough of an uproar about curses for WOTC to improve them? Probably not, but that’s okay. I GOT YOU! We’re going to go over 5 ways you can make curses better in D&D.

1. Expand the use of curses.

We don’t have to just curse weapons but allow them to be placed where traps typically would go. Enemies and NPCs could also place curses on the characters via magic or witchcraft. We could be more imaginative with how we place and introduce curses into our games. Instead of having curses on a magic item that’s just going to get discarded or sold, curses can be impactful to the plot and more central to an adventure or event in the campaign.

2. Make curses more challenging and interesting to remove.

Casting remove curse to remove a curse is uninteresting and boring. It adds nothing to the game besides an easy way out. However, excitement in the game often comes from overcoming challenges and adversity, not from quick and easy solutions. The player could just say, “Oh, there’s a dungeon to clear out. Cool, I create 100 skeletons and send them in to do the deed.” Okay . . . great. The dungeon has been cleared out. That was a fun adventure. Anyone want to play Catan or Risk now?”

Making curses harder to remove is going to add adversity and challenge. It’s going to make things more interesting than just a simple remove curse spell. We’ll give some examples of how to make curses more interesting to remove in just a little bit when we get into the idea of having different severities of curses.

3. Curses should have an upside.

Now, the curse itself is usually all negative. But there should be an upside; usually, this is the benefit of the magic item the curse is on. But they may have looted a tomb and gotten lots of treasure . . . and then gotten cursed by the ancient spirits guarding the tomb.

The upside should balance out the downside of the curse, such as the idea behind yin and yang, give and take. A screw job all by itself sucks. But getting something really awesome, though having consequences to deal with, is great. First, they balance each other out psychologically for players, making it easier to accept. Second, doing this introduces drama and challenges into the game, which is one of the foremost jobs of dungeon masters.

4. Target different parts of a person with curses.

There are three different types of curses you can put on someone. The first one is curses of the body. These are curses that purely affect the physical being of an individual. They make them physically weaker, slower, or feebler. Typically, these curses are not going to affect the mind—in fact, many who create such curses want their victims to fully understand what is happening to them.

The second kind of curse is a curse of the mind. The opposite of a curse of the body, these curses purely affect someone’s mind. Addled thoughts, befuddled decision-making, and the like are the common goals of a curse of the mind. Fortunately, these curses rarely affect one’s body as well, making particularly less brilliant adventurers the ideal patsy for such a curse, leaving the rest of the party all the better for it.

The last curse type is curses of the soul. These are the vilest of all curses, at least in my humble opinion. When they are placed upon a living being, it corrupts and harms their very soul—the literal essence of what makes them who they are. The cruelty and malice that must be poured into such a curse are incomprehensible, and the ultimate effect of such a curse is often damnation for its unfortunate victim.

We’ll be giving an example of each type as we go through the different severities of curses later.

5. Make different severities of curses.

Curses should not be one-size-fits-all. In fact, there are several different types of curses. The first is hexes. These are the lowest form of curses that can be removed by casting remove curse or another trivial manner, such as just waiting it out because it only lasts so long and then goes away, such as with seven years of bad luck.

Basic curses grant disadvantage but are not terribly debilitating, and removing them is not as easy as casting remove curse—but it isn’t too terribly hard either.

For example, let’s go over the Tongue of the Snake. This is a basic curse of the body that can inhabit any vessel. While affected by this curse, you have a snake-like tongue. This causes everything you say, in any language, to sound like you are hissing, with particular emphasis on the letter ‘s’ whenever it appears in your speech. If you are talking to a creature that is not evil-aligned, you have disadvantage on Charisma (Persuasion and Intimidation) checks to influence that creature. However, you have advantage on all Charisma (Deception) checks when trying to influence the same creatures.

New Flaw. I find my new pattern of speech to be quite amusing, and I try to show it off whenever possible.

Removal of the Curse. This curse can only be removed by drinking the blood of a great serpent. A great serpent can be interpreted in many ways. Ultimately, any snake-like creature, such as a sea serpent or medusa that is at least CR 3, is an appropriate choice for a great serpent.

Intermediate curses advance beyond merely being an inconvenience, as is the case with basic curses, and turn into something a little more dangerous. Often, these curses have the potential to indirectly threaten the life of the person being affected, though it is rare that the curse itself would directly threaten one’s life. However, removing them is more challenging.

Let’s go over the Curse of Repetition as an example. It is an intermediate curse of the mind that can inhabit any vessel.

Whenever the affected creature attempts to use an action or bonus action, it must succeed on a DC 14 Wisdom saving throw. On a failure, the creature is unable to take a new action and must repeat the last action it performed. If it is not possible for the creature to repeat its previous action, it simply does nothing. Once the creature has succeeded on the saving throw, it does not need to make another one for one hour.

New Flaw. Whenever I am writing or speaking, people tell me that I am repeating sentences on a regular basis, even if I don’t notice it myself.

Removal of the Curse. The curse can only be removed by forging a contract of absolute order. Such a contract can be made by beings native to Mechanus, the Hells, or the Celestial Mountain. An appropriately powerful being should be contacted to make this contract with, though it needn’t be as powerful as a deva or a pit fiend.

Advanced curses are extraordinarily dangerous to be afflicted with and always present mortal danger for those unfortunate enough to become afflicted. In fact, those curses at the upper echelons of this tier of power may even cause death due to the curse. Typically, these curses attempt to compel some behavior from those afflicted and attempts to disobey result in extreme punishment by the curse. This isn’t to say that the compulsion is absolute, merely that the curse will seek retribution for disobedience. Of course, this curse is much harder to remove.

An example of an advanced curse of the soul is Desire of the Hells, and the type of vessel it can inhabit is unknown. For this curse, the afflicted creature feels a compulsion within them to harvest souls and condemn them to an eternity in the Hells. This compulsion emanates from a flame that now burns within the creature’s blackening heart: a hellfire that only they can control. If the creature did not already know the produce flame cantrip, they know it for as long as they are cursed. When the creature casts produce flame, it creates hellfire instead of regular flames.

Should the cursed creature fail to harvest at least three souls every week in this way, they must succeed on a DC 20 Wisdom saving throw or have their Constitution score reduced by 2 until they harvest at least one soul. Should the creature fail this saving throw three weeks in a row or five times total, they become instantly engulfed in hellfire and have their soul condemned to the same fate as their victims.

New Flaw. I want to lash out in rage whenever I see someone act happy or pleased with themselves; if I cannot be happy, they cannot, and they should die for it.

Removal of the Curse. One can only get the curse removed by one who ventures within themselves. This is intended to be an adventure that sees the creature and any companions they wish to bring enter the cursed creature’s soul. They will need to discover a way to do this, typically either a rare magic item or a powerful mage, and then defeat the blackness that now exists within the creature’s soul.

True curses are a rarity in the world; only a tiny handful of them have ever appeared throughout the annals of history. These curses can only be created by beings of nearly incomprehensible might. In fact, the weakest such being that I have ever heard be capable of casting a true curse was an ancient lich. Notably, the lich cursed an entire continent in an effort to take their souls into his phylactery. It was a truly horrendous event that required incredibly powerful adventurers to put an end to it. That should give you an idea of the scope of what we are referring to with true curses.

By the way, if you’d like to get the written version of all this, including a step-by-step guide for how to create your own curses, check out Accursed Arcanum: A Practical Guide to Hexes and Curses.

These curses are cataclysmic events when they appear, and legendary heroes make entire careers out of defeating them. The exact nature of a true curse varies from casting to casting, but they all share one common feature: the very existence of those affected by them is at risk when cast. As in the case of the lich noted above, the souls of everyone on the continent were the target of the curse.

True curses are only intended to be used as a campaign-defining event or possibly even the basis for an entire campaign. They should have wide-reaching implications for the world as a whole and cannot be used in combat or by accidentally equipping a random magic item. The mechanics behind a true curse will be used as a part of the setting rather than something that affects the gameplay itself. Removing a true curse is exceptionally challenging and involves an adventure or adventure arc to accomplish.

Now, you might be asking yourself: When should I be giving these different levels of severity of curses to my players? At what level should I give them? The following are my recommendations.

  • When to give the different severities of curses in your game
    • Hexes—tier one (levels 1-4)
    • Basic curses—tier two (levels 5-10)
    • Intermediate and advanced curses—tier three (levels 11-16)
    • True curses—tier four (levels 17-20)

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