Curses!!

“So be it.  If cursed I am to remain, then cursed you too will be. From this day forth, though mine is a prison of stone, yours will be a prison of magic.  Dwharv, you who worried about the will you would thwart, will find that fear gripping your heart.  It will turn your bones to water, and your spine to jelly.  Auxen, in silence you agree, in silence you shall live.  Let your tongue turn to the desert and your words dry up in your mouth in times of need.   And you, Angel,” a word that is spat out of the trapdoor, thick with anguish and venom, “you who espouse freedom, but hide from its potential consequences behind a veil of self-righteousness, your hands will bleed as much as you say your heart does in the presence of the imprisoned.  These will last, not until you free me, for then I would be as base as you, but until you free a truly innocent soul, redeeming yourselves in the eyes of men and gods.”

 

This is part of the post that one of the groups in my online game received.  The context is not really important in this case, but the long and the short it is they are cursed. 

I have always been torn by the use of curses in games.  There are a lot of reasons why.  First of all I love curses.  I am an avid reader of fantasy, and love watching curses play out.  I am a story teller, and feel that the weight of a curse adds a lot to the story of a character.  Even when I am cursed in a game, if it is crafted well, I enjoy it.

But the main reason I am hesitant to use them in a game is a question of mechanics.  In the majority of fantasy games you, as both the GM and the player, are given a number of mechanical curses.  These things involve spells, saves, and penalties.  These are all very banal expressions of curses.  In the fiction we love to emulate: you don’t see a wizard throwing out curses like spells, they are hurled from a dark place of vengeance and malice; you don’t see the warrior just shrug off a curse that is levied at him with a wink and a nod to his natural fortitude [save]; and you don’t see curses just wear off after the spell expires, they last until a year and a day has passed, until the stars fall from the sky, or until the conditions which caused the curse are reversed.

Part of the mechanical hesitation is we are still playing a game.  So cursing a warrior to never raise a sword again: ie: penalize his to-hit roll, remove the sword from his class list of weapons, ect. (unless you have that perfect player) can ruin the fun of the game for him.  After all he played the fighter, customized him, to wield a sword!

So I have been looking for new ways to work curses into my game, and I am trying to divorce ‘True Curses’ from the main mechanics of the game.  Here is what I have come up with:

1)     No Saves, But a Loop Hole:  True curses in my games allow saves.  It defeats the whole idea behind curses, in my opinion.  But I am not going to saddle a PC with a debilitating curse forever.  There has to be a way out.  Maybe the PC picks up a different weapon than a sword, maybe he has to undo the perceived wrong, or speak to a god about it.  But there is a way to remove it, even if it is not obvious.  Which leads into…

 

2)     Words, Words, Words: Wording of a curse is important.  It has to feel like someone is spitting hate, drawing on dark powers, ect.  I will allow PC’s to do this in similar situations, if the world allows for such magic, but it has to be worded right, or the curse doesn’t stick.  I view curses like prophecy, to be potent in the minds of the players, they have to be worded right.  I won’t hit them mechanically, in a way that they will notate on the character sheet.  It will either be painfully obvious, like the bleeding hands curse above, or be vague enough to hang over the PC till it manifests.  The dwarf is actually a dragon in disguise in a world that hates and fears his kind.  So the curse of  ‘turning your bones to water, and your spine to jelly’ may actually play out in a shape shifting way, as opposed to the obvious fear effects.

 

3)     Hit them with story, not mechanics: I would rather not give out flat or situational penalties to my players.  A ‘-2’ verse dragons is not visceral enough, nor does it feel like the curses I am trying to emulate.  So I crafted the above.  Bleeding hands, being unable to cry out in times of need, and something vague that could be about fear, these are story manifestations that while constraining are not debilitating.  And their way out is story-linked as well.  It is not “have atone cast upon thee by a 9th level or higher priest.”  This curse will dog their heels till they find and free a truly innocent man. 

 

So those are my thoughts on curses.  How have you used them in your game and to what effect?  Any thoughts or comments on these thoughts or comments?

 

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