By Julian Kay
Illustration by Aaron McConnell & Lee Moyer
To conclude the series on curses, we’ll be discussing other ways a PC might become cursed in play . . . or inflict curses of their own.
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Magical items are the most common way that heroes encounter a curse. Early F20 games loved to set cursed items as traps to ensnare characters with magic, whereas 13th Age uses them as traps to ensnare players with power. See 13th Age, 13 True Ways, and Loot Harder for specific examples.
But it’s worth pondering what makes a cursed item, whether it’s fault, age, or a troubling self-awareness. With enchanted weapons, maybe centuries of exposure to trauma and violence turns an enchantment into a curse. Smiths forge weapons to harm and kill, and what could be more spiteful than that? For a low-level curse, consider a magic item whose quirk is truly malicious and sometimes hard to resist. Maybe the cursed-quirk will go away as the magic item accepts you as its user. Or maybe it will mutate into something weirder.
Maybe magic items adjust to their users. If you’re taking a magic item from a monster, maybe the item has become monstrous over time.
For the GM looking for ways to generate curses, abandonment could be just as bad as over-use. If magic items are alive, even if they’re not alive as we are, being abandoned for decades could have deleterious effects.
Of the icons, those on the “evil” side of the alignment grid are most often associated with curses in the text, with the Diabolist and Lich King coming up the most often in that context. But those in power often deal out curses in myth regardless of their moral compass, and it’s not hard to imagine even the Great Gold Wyrm cursing a great paladin that betrays their watch, or the Prince of Shadows using a curse to lay a rival low.
But there’s more we can do with icons that mere in-character tales of twisted tongues. The bard’s Balladeer talent (13A pg. 85) introduces the idea of cursed icon dice, which could easily represent an in-game curse, either adding cursed dice to a character’s icon relationships or replacing their dice with cursed dice—perhaps one per icon roll, at least until the character finds a way to purify themselves of bad luck.
If you want to get into the business of cursing icons yourself, look up the bard’s Song of the Iconoclast in Book of Ages (BoA pg. 81). Why would you want to do such a thing? Well, we assume you have your reasons.
So You’ve Got a Curse
We haven’t talked much about curses on heroes in play. And by “curse”, in this context, we don’t mean the ongoing damage coming from a mouthy goblin mystic. We’re talking about curses as a plot twist, the sort that take agency from players. Some players may be fine with that, and some far less so. It’s best to know in advance, and there’s no rule against asking them straight-out. Spoiling a surprise is better than violating trust.
The simplest way around this is to make curse-based plot twists largely about NPCs, preferably ones the characters have become invested in (or who invest in the heroes to solve their problem). Most curses leveled at PCs themselves should be flavorful in nature, or at least short-term, requiring a ritual or an icon’s favor. Of course, if a player really digs the characterization a good (bad?) curse brings, they can choose to embrace it. Just make sure it’s not an undue weight on the rest of the group.
Most curses on PCs are best as narrative story elements rather than in-game penalties. If you do offer penalties, they should be modest, like those for cursed items. Our interest in cursing PCs would be for the story that evolves from such, and the story where a hero became 20% more likely to miss isn’t a particularly interesting one.
There’s no rule that PCs can’t get into the cursing business. Outside of class spells or a tiefling’s curse of chaos, handle this through the existing ritual rules (13A pg. 192). But depending on the nature of curses you’ve decided upon, curses may run on pure drama as much as magic. What hard-hearted GM could refuse the dying curse of a PC? And it could just be when the stars are right and emotions run high, even ill-considered words could have an impact.
When handling ritual curses by PCs, balance their narrative weight against their efficacy as a solution, as they shouldn’t be a go-to solution for most games. Curses are rarely justifiable as heroic, and often carry an unwanted side effect or troublesome requirement. It’s likely that severe curses, the kind that blind people or cause unreasoning hostility from each passerby, may inflict a curse on the caster themselves. GMs may also want to consider curses the way they consider other personal and profound forms of violence. Casting a powerful curse is an act that seeks severe, premeditated wrong to somebody, and it’s up to you to figure out if that’s appropriate for your table.
+1 Profane Bonus
Sometimes cursed words are just foul instead of fiendish. We’re not going to dig deeply into profanity, but after all these words on ill fates, here’s something fun to think about ill words: what unique or special things do characters and monsters say when they run into unpleasant surprises? What would a dwarf be without some foul phrase about beards? Hell, what does a demon say when things go wrong? They can’t just say “hell!” or “damn!”—what’s a curse to others is normal for a demon.
Some tables don’t appreciate profane cursing. Others thrive on it, and you can apply creativity either way. Your characters’ backgrounds, icons, and class can all contribute! If you’re a bard and you don’t have a colorful phrase when you drop your lute, I want you out of my tavern.