Cursed Items in D&D: Why I don’t like them; how I intend to use them differently

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.

personal role-playing

Jauf, human fighter

Just Another Uninteresting Fighter

I’m steadily making spare characters for D&D 5e, partly to help me gain insight into game mechanics while I work on my Musketeers-inspired campaign, but mostly because it’s a fun exercise. I don’t usually do fighters so I thought it was time to give it a try. I’l say this: D&D 5e has finally done a good job making fighters into more than just dumb muscle.

Here’s his Level 3 character sheet.


Marvek, halfling warlock

This is Marvek, my second D&D character. (It’s for a one-shot, so don’t worry — Jeribon is still alive and well.) Warlocks are a new class — new to me, at least, as they weren’t in AD&D. They’re an odd type of spellcaster, who has few slots but recharges quickly.

I have a custom character sheet too. This campaign is starting at 3rd level, which is good, because that’s when warlocks start to get interesting.

Marvek has always been a bit of an odd halfling. While most seek a life of ease and familiarity, Marvek early on suffered from wanderlust. He sensed that the ordered and tidy lives of halflings stood at odds with the world – not that life is chaos but that life dances to different rules. He felt within him a calling to wander, to see the world, to seek out its hidden regularities; when he reached 14 years, he shook off the dust of his home and took to the road, joining a trading caravan whose captain took a shine to him. Always, he felt drawn westward, eventually to the edge of the great sea, and beyond. At 16, he joined the crew of the Duskwind, a seafaring vessel, and learned the sailor’s trade. His small size and great agility made him a natural in the ropes and rigging, but his interest lay in the steering of the course.

After a few years aboard the Duskwind, he convinced the ship’s navigator to tutor him in the ways of navigation and sea-pathfinding. He apprenticed for seven years, dividing his effort between his regular sailing duties and the demands of the navigator, a stout human named Sinder. After taking a wound during a run-in with pirates, Sinder developed a raging infection and died, leaving Marvek the role of navigator. Marvek still felt the tidal pull of the west, and when the captain of the Duskwind proposed seeking a legendary lost land where the sun sets, Marvek eagerly supported the plan and promised he could steer the ship there and bring them all home. He proved to be half right.

The Duskwind set sail for the mythical west, soon leaving behind all known ports of call. Passing through increasingly agitated seas under skies lit by strange purple fire, the ship encountered stranger and stranger creatures and unnatural tides. Within a few weeks of this, the crew wished to abandon the project but Captain Sparshank held true to his purpose, his eyes taking on a mad intensity as he studied the rare and ominous tomes and maps he had accumulated. Only Marvek matched him in enthusiasm, hearing for the first time the dissonant chords that had haunted him finally drifting into harmony. He felt sure that, if they held their course only a little longer, he would finally understand.

On the seventy-seventh day, the crew had had enough. With supplies running low and no sight of land for weeks, they rose up to challenge the captain. Marvek alone stood by his side. While Sparshank kept the crew at bay with blade and bellows, Marvek kept the ship sailing directly into the sunset. Just as the crew rushed the captain, the setting sun blazed purple and baleful, flaring in ever-increasing brilliance just as the notes haunting Marvek reached an aching crescendo. As he felt his grasp on reality fail, just before his consciousness dissolved in the purple glare, Marvek thought he saw the Sun turn into a giant lidless eye…

He awoke, dazed and alone, an indeterminate time later on a beach on the western coast of the Iron Confederacy. Through his veins pulsed power he had never known. Behind his eyes danced lines of force and unity. Looking out at the natural world, he sensed that things seem wrong, off, not in accord. Straight lines seem slightly bent; harmonious chords sound vaguely discordant. Rather than curing his earlier sense of dissonance, his experience sharpened it, levering even wider the chasm he felt between himself and others. He knows that out there on the endless sea, something touched his mind and soul, but he does not know what. He has a dim awareness of it in the recesses of his mind but he comprehends none of its purpose or intent. He does sense, though, that his way no longer lies west; he has been cast back to explore the world of mortals.

It has been nearly two years since his new beginning. In that time, he hasn’t heard even the faintest whisper of the Duskwind or its crew at the time of the event. There are crewmembers who knew him from before, who had left the ship before the fateful voyage. He is unresponsive to their questions and they offer no insight to him. Once, in Ironkeep, across a crowded market, he glimpsed Sparshank ducking into a nondescript inn; but when he worked his way there and investigated, he did not find his former captain. Sometimes he doubts whether he actually saw Sparshank, or whether it was a delusion or a haunting.

Marvek’s experience has left him feeling even more distant and removed from the world of mortals. He maintains a wall between him and any companions; he does not seek to know their inner lives nor volunteer any of his own. He is generally humorless, although he sometimes finds amusement in things others would not see as such. He bears no particular malice or animus towards others but he also doesn’t exert himself overly on their behalf. On some days, he thinks he moves through a world of illusion.

personal role-playing


Update 2019 May 8: Here’s Jeribon’s 3rd-level character sheet.

I’m getting back into D&D, hopefully, and I’m starting with Jeribon, a gnomish rogue. In the best traditions of the Internet, I’ve just stolen this image (from ) until I can figure out one for myself.


Jeribon was a young gnome at the time of the Sundering (ten or so years old).  His earliest memories are of escaping the chaos and destruction by fleeing westward.  He has vague, nostalgia-tinted memories of bona fide gnomish communities, rather than the scattered and diffuse enclaves that exist now.  A lot of his memories are sepia and warm and, he knows, probably idealized.

Jeribon was the youngest of three children.  The middle child Amya (aged 35, or “teenaged” for gnomes) did not survive the passage to the west; her absence is a chasm between Jeribon and his oldest sibling, and was a millstone for his parents while they lived.  The eldest, Bero, had just attained gnomish adulthood (40 years) and had been about to embark on his own independent life when the Sundering hit.  Jeribon’s parents were middle-aged (about 150) at the time.

After some time wandering as tinkers through the west, Jeribon’s family ended up in Ironkeep, joining the small gnomish enclave there and offering their tinkering and inventing skills to the diverse population.  Jeribon’s mother eventually secured a place with a minor noble and the family settled on the noble’s land a short distance from Ironkeep.  On reaching maturity (40 years or so old), Jeribon undertook the usual gnomish rumspinga, flitting from enclave to enclave to learn gnomish culture in the diaspora.  During this time he picked up his scar and lost his earlobe, but he doesn’t talk about it.

A couple of years later he returned to the noble’s estate and settled in as part-time tinker and part-time archivist.  He and the noble shared a minor obsession with the written or printed word, and both enjoyed amassing a store of “wisdom” both obscure and trivial.  Bero, feeling constrained, eventually went off on adventures and he lost track of him.  Both Jeribon’s parents passed away a half-century or so after the Sundering – somewhat sooner than the usual gnomish lifespan.  Though they had found peace and a semblance of joy in the diaspora, the loss of the gnomish homelands had diminished their spirits and they simply didn’t hold onto life with as much gusto.

Jeribon remained at the estate through several more generations.  He spent most of his time squirreled away in the family’s library (ever-increasing, if at a slow rate), serving as archivist, librarian, and sometimes-tutor.  Quick to dispense what knowledge he has (whether you asked for it or not), Jeribon was generally regarded more with amusement than respect, but since his role as tutor was informal and backed by no actual power, he was remembered fondly by the various scions of the noble family.

Alas for them, the family fortune declined with time.  Almost imperceptibly, the noble line found itself shunted aside as the Iron Confederacy stabilized, recovered, and expanded.  Their rough-hewn ideals fit less naturally into a maturing polity.  Eventually, the line dwindled to a single female heir.  When her parents died, she was foisted off on a fosterage and the lands confiscated by ruthless, but entirely legal, means.  Jeribon found himself on the streets.  He had enough means to live comfortably, but his beloved library (which, after all, wasn’t actually his) was broken up and sold piecemeal.

Unimpressed by the niceties of the legalistic maneuvering, Jeribon made off with his two favorite volumes – one, a history of the kingdoms before the Sundering and the other, a compilation of swashbuckling fairy tales.  Although he probably could have found a comfortable similar posting, he found himself repelled by the thought of settling back into a nice conventional life.  He’s seen the powerful make the rules to their favor and break them without a moment’s hesitation, and he’s decided he’s going to be a free agent from now on.  And if along the way, he can liberate some of the ill-gotten gain from the powerful and shameless, that’s all to the better.