Cursed Items

Cursed item mechanics have been revised in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons to focus on the narrative element. Beyond hints dropped in the item’s lore, a character attuning to a cursed item will have no idea of their impending affliction until it strikes. Let’s take a look at the new mechanics and how to best employ them in your campaign.

Curse Mechanics

How do they work? The mechanics for cursed items are relatively brief (Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 138-9). Let’s unpack them:

  • Curse Effect
    • Should be revealed as a surprise to the user
    • Can affect user after they stop using the item
  • Identifying the Curse
    • Works:
      • Using the item (revealed as a surprise)
      • Deducing the curse from a hint in its lore
      • Wish spell
    • Doesn’t work:
      • “Regular Methods”
      • Identify spell
        • Reveals magical properties
        • Does not reveal curses
      • Detect Magic spell
        • Reveals whether item is magical
        • Does not reveal source of magic
  • Removing the Curse
    • Remove Curse spell
      • Allows a player to break attunement and unequip
      • Does not actually remove the curse from the item
    • Greater Restoration spell
      • Removes one curse from a creature
      • Allows a player to break attunement and unequip
      • Does not actually remove the curse from the item
    • Wish spell
      • May remove item curse at the DM’s discretion
      • Stronger curses may be more difficult or impossible to remove
      • Value limit on objects is 25,000 gp
    • Attunement can’t be ended unless curse is broken (i.e. remove curse)

Using Cursed Items

Using cursed items effectively requires rule enforcement and narrative building.

Attunement

Keeping curses impactful requires the DM to keep players honest with their attunement slots. A character can only be attuned to three items at once under RAW. As such, a major drawback of using a cursed item is that it will occupy one of the character’s limited attunement slots, preventing them from obtaining the benefit of a different magic item. This is amplified by the fact that the cursed item cannot be unequipped.

Beneficial Properties

A good cursed item will also have beneficial properties. This serves several purposes:

Allure. You want to make sure that the leery player looks past the ominous description and equips the item regardless of the risk. A cursed item will be no fun if the player just shoves it in their pack to sell off to some helpless shopkeep.

Internal Struggle. Oftentimes, these beneficial qualities can be stronger than a standard magic item of the same rarity, to offset the negative effect of the curse. This enhances the roleplay because it creates an internal conflict in the player character, who will want to keep the benefit of the cursed item while having to deal with its detriments.

Disguising the Curse. If an item is only cursed and has no magic properties, you could find out by casting Identify (no result) and Detect Magic (shows as magical). Even minor beneficial properties can keep your players from using conventional means to determine whether an item is cursed.

Drive the Story

Since cursed items were rebuilt for better narrative, it makes sense to work them into your story. A cursed item should mean something to a campaign. It’s not intended as a way to punish a player, but to encourage roleplaying opportunities arising from the internal struggle.

Cleansing the Curse. While a Remove Curse spell can assist a player in unequipping a cursed item, the item remains cursed. Motivate the players to remove the curse from the item. A quest to remove a curse can take any number of forms:

  • Killing the mage who placed the bane upon the weapon.
  • Rinsing the weapon in the blood of each chromatic dragon.
  • Performing a sacred ritual in a lost druid grove under the light of a full moon.
  • Cleansing in a holy well located at the bottom of a disused cathedral.

Destroying the Item. After interacting with a particularly intriguing item, the party might be inclined to keep others from it. Whether they decide to drown it with The Lady of the Lake or melt it in the magma of Mount Doom, there are plenty of ways to dispense with magical items (and even more to bring them back).

Unwitting Affliction. A party who doesn’t realize that they’ve acquired a cursed item may sell it to a shopkeep or gift it to an NPC ally, without realizing that they are causing harm. Those who are harmed by a cursed item they received from the party may seek remuneration or revenge. You can retcon this into your campaign, even if the party never actually came across any cursed items.

Weaponizing. A cunning party who deduces that an item is cursed may plot to use it against their foes. This is like the “unwitting affliction” for skeptical parties with flexible morals. This can set the scene for tense social encounters with powerful members of opposing factions. It can also lead to fun heist-like adventures, where the party needs to swap the genuine article for a cursed fake.

Curse Effects

While a curse can be any simple bane, good curses are thematically linked to the power of the weapon. You can get good ideas for curses from the minor and major detrimental artifact properties (Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 220). Let’s explore a few different types of curses you can use when building your own.

Thematic Curses

I like to build curses around different thematic tropes (often drawing from myth). This may allow you to create a group of items and scatter them across the landscape of your campaign setting. For example:

Pre-Curses

This is a different type of curse which requires the user to undertake a foul ritual before they can attune to the item or use its special properties.

  • Kill a creature of your alignment
  • Draw blood (e.g. 1d4 damage of weapon type)
  • Drain spell slot(s)

Each of these effects can be applied on a permanent basis to attune to the item (sacrifice a creature, lose max HP, lose use of a spell slot). Once the curse is broken, the player can recover, save the emotional trauma and a potential dent in their alignment.

On the other hand, some pre-curses can be applied temporarily to trigger an effect. For example, you may need to draw blood before the cursed item procs an effect, or charge it by channeling magic into it (expending a spell slot).

Beneficial Curses

Some curses can be used to a character’s benefit. For example, there is a detrimental artifact property (Dungeon Master’s Guide p. 220) which destroys all Holy Water within 10 feet of you. Yet, a property like this would be a welcome boon for a vampire like Strahd von Zarovich.

Rival thieves gangs competing to nip the same artifact might employ a cursed item. The group who gets there first can swap out the genuine article for a cursed fake. The curse may enable the early gang to spy (scry) on the exploits of the unwitting late gang. Or maybe the item starts blabbing about the heist (magic mouth) at the first sign of the city guard.

Either way, curses which benefit specific types of users are a great way to outfit powerful villains without giving the party access to an overtuned magic item that can throw your party balance out of whack.

“It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.”

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