A time-honored mechanic in Dungeons & Dragons is the cursed item: A ring, or armor, or what-have-you, that — when a player character wears or uses the item — activates a bane. Usually, the item cannot be removed once the curse is revealed; usually, the curse cannot be determined before use even via things like the identify spell. The effects can be large or small, baleful or (allegedly) humorous. I’d already decided not to use these sorts of items in my (eternally-delayed) Three Musketeers campaign. My decision wasn’t motivated by recently acquiring a cursed item for a PC I’m playing (honest!), but I hadn’t really worked through my antipathy. This is my attempt to get a handle on why I dislike them so much and how to access the flavor without adopting the mechanic.
I’m no historian of D&D, but it seems to me that cursed items as written are a relic of what I like to call the Jerk Age of D&D. Early in the game, the relationship between dungeon master and players was antagonistic. The role of the DM was to throw obstacles in the PCs’ path, and the role of PCs was to confound the DM and undo his* plans. (* In the early days of D&D, the demographics were overwhelmingly male.) The metagame was to show off how smart, well-read, and ruthless you were: Thus, vast and convoluted rules that interacted in weird ways, and giant compendia of weapons and spells and monsters. (D&D could well have been named Tabular Data: The Game — although it really didn’t hold a candle to Rolemaster in that regard. But that’s grist for a different article.) Although rarely explicitly stated, the orientation D&D was DM versus the players. In that mindset, cursed items make sense and fit naturally. If you doubt me, read descriptions from, say, the AD&D 2nd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. Dripping from each paragraph is the malign glee the writers felt picturing the hapless helplessness of the players who suffer the items.
It’s a mistake to think there’s only one style of D&D or one set of motivations. But 5th Edition has definitely moved more toward story telling and collaborative world-building. I would argue that this, as much as the simplification of the rules, underlies the resurgence of the game’s popularity in recent years. But in this new framework, cursed items as typically deployed don’t really fit. They remain a mechanism to punish characters, often for the “sin” of wanting to improve. It might be argued that they’re meant to chastise players for being too greedy or ambitious, but in a world where the GM routinely dispenses copious rewards for players acting a certain way, it’s simply mean and counterproductive to then “punish” players for exactly the same actions.
The greatest failing of cursed items, though, is that they work against the main draw of role-playing games (as I see it, at least): They rob players of agency. Though technically they do activate as a response to a player action, they don’t really activate as a response to a player’s choice. Of course, there’s the trivial sense of choice in that the player chooses to put on the ring or whatever. But because they are designed to camouflage their nature, cursed items rob the player of genuine choice. If 19 out of 20 rings are beneficial or harmless, it’s a strange moral economy that dictates you avoid all rings because one might be cursed.
For classic cursed items, there is a choice and there are consequences — but, except in the most trivial way, those consequences are unrelated to the scope of the choice. The cost is immediate and non-negotiable, made in a moment and carried forward indefinitely. Almost always, in fact, the cursed item conveys no benefit whatsoever. You can tell the mechanic is broken because almost every curse ends up having to enforce its terms arbitrarily: The player simply can’t rid themselves of the item, even though they instantly want to. Why not? Because the rules say so — somehow, the universe rewires itself so that you can’t drop the item.
Compare that to the best cursed items in world literature. Perhaps the best is the One Ring. It bestows a real advantage — invisibility to mortal eyes. But it carries a curse: It sings out to Ring Wraiths, drawing the attention of the more dire opponents in Middle Earth. Just carrying the Ring endangers one; using it is much worse. Yet Frodo doesn’t throw it away, although he certainly could have. (Well, any time before reaching Mount Doom, I suppose.) He keeps the cursed item for a reason, not because Tolkein just mandated “Frodo can’t get rid of it”.
So, how to “fix” cursed items? Make them plot-relevant. Make them useful. Make them exact real costs, not metagame-mandated costs. They should confer real benefits, reasons why a rational person might keep an item even though it’s dangerous. This forces the players to balance the benefit against the cost. Looking over all the best fantasies stories, almost all memorable climaxes involve the hero having to make a sacrifice. Use the cursed item as the mechanic for that.
The mildest cases might involve minor personal sacrifice. Maybe the ring gives advantage on, say, lore checks but does 1 HP of psychic damage every time it’s used. A sword might be fantastic in combat but “jealous”, working only if the bearer discards all other weapons. A ring of feather fall that saves your life when you tumble into the chasm but saddles you with two or three levels of exhaustion.
Or the circumstances might be more fraught. Perhaps the traveling cloak makes arduous journeys simple, but slowly blights any area where it remains too long. Perhaps a rod of healing cures all ailments but only at the cost of someone else’s lifeforce. Maybe the scrying helmet pierces all veils but occasionally consumes the eyes of its user. Maybe the sword that can vanquish the Big Bad demands the sacrifice of an innocent. Force the players to make choices so that the item carries narrative import.
Put simply, items shouldn’t be cursed for the sake of being cursed and certainly they shouldn’t be cursed for the sake of impairing PCs. Their curse should flow naturally from the story and should contribute back to it.