When playing a tabletop RPG, especially one with a familiar system or world, it can be hard to surprise your players. Many people know what a mind flayer does or how barbarian rage works or what a basilisk’s gaze will do to your complexion. I love creating new content to throw my players off. Curses, I’ve found, are a great way to add some misfortune and ratchet up the tension by introducing something they didn’t expect and cannot necessarily predict.
I wrote these with a Pathfinder or D&D game in mind, but you can easily apply these ideas to a different system. Just substitute the affected stats and attributes for the closest ones in the system you’re using.
It will turn to ash in your mouth…
Some of the most anxiety-inducing events in a game are ones that won’t kill a character but draws attention to their weaknesses and exploits them. This curse won’t ever kill a character. It will make them weaker and weaker until they’re a living shadow of their former self, exposed and vulnerable to even the smallest of threats.
When the curse starts, it manifests simply as food tasting bad to that player. As time passes, food starts tasting worse and worse until it turns into a sulfuric-tasting ash moments after it touches their tongue. Even if they manage to swallow it, they receive no nutrients. Despite not being able to eat, the curse will not let them die of starvation.
The curse slowly lowers their strength and constitution to 5, but it will not go any lower than that. Have their strength and constitution drop by one every 2-7 in-game days, whichever fits the pacing of your game best.
When someone lifts the curse, their stats return to normal within a day, and they can ingest food normally again.
The white wolf of the closing grave…
This curse is meant to make a player nervous, fearing what might happen rather than suffering the actual effects of the curse, though it can kill the cursed character.
When the cursed character has about 30% of their HP left, a single white wolf appears in the distance, no matter where they are. It locks eyes with the character, never turning away from them. No one other than the cursed character reacts to the wolf because no one else can see it. The white wolf will move to avoid making contact with things, such as walking around people if it is in a crowded street or trees in a forest.
If the cursed character gets healed so they have more than 30% of their HP, the wolf will keep its distance and eventually walk away, disappearing into whatever environment it is in.
As the cursed character loses HP, the wolf will get closer, still avoiding any solid matter. As the white wolf gets closer, it shows more noticeable signs of hunger. It begins salivating. Its eyes go wild. It starts panting harder. If the player tries to attack the wolf, it will run to keep some distance between itself and the character, but it will not leave.
If the cursed character hits zero HP, the white wolf becomes visible to everyone and attacks the cursed character. The white wolf’s main objective is to tear out the cursed character’s throat, effectively doing a coup de grace, and then devour their corpse, equipment and all. The wolf can be hit by players when it is visible. If it is likely it will die before it devours the cursed player, it will flee. However, it will return.
If the character never reaches zero HP before the curse is lifted, that is fine. The point is to invoke a sense of dread and anxiety, and while they may not know whether or not the white wolf will kill them, the threat is real.
The Things You Own End Up Owning You…
This curse works best on martial classes or characters, those who favor armor and weapons, because the initial benefits best support them. While it works best on heavy armor, it can work with light armor or even cloth armor.
The curse works by slowly fusing the character with their equipment. While at first the character experiences more positive effects than negative ones, this curse will eventually kill them. The effects escalate at a rate appropriate to the timeline of your campaign. I suggest having new effects every two or so sessions or one week of in-game time, but tailor it to fit your campaign.
The first noticeable effect of the curse is the player wakes up wearing their armor and/or holding their weapon (their favorite one, if they have multiple). One day upon waking up, they find that their weapon fused to their hand, their fingers and hand intertwined with the handle up to their wrist. If it is a two-handed weapon, it only fuses to their dominant hand. This has a few benefits:
- The cursed player cannot be disarmed.
- The weapon gains bonuses against sunder attempts and other attempts to break the weapon. Treat it as if they were trying to break a part of the character’s body.
- The weight of the weapon does not count against the player’s maximum weight or penalties from carrying capacity.
- After a short time, the weapon becomes a +1 magical weapon. If it was already magical, it gains another level of magic (+1 becomes +2, etc.) and a magical effect (shocking, bane, etc. GM’s pick).
There are a few negative effects as well:
- They cannot remove the weapon (obviously).
- They cannot use that hand, and thus, cannot perform any two-handed activities (properly tying a rope, climbing, etc). They can perform those tasks with the penalty as if they had only one hand.
After waking up in their armor a few times, the character finds that the armor has fused to their flesh, making it impossible to take off and allowing it to start feeling like a second skin. Thus, they gain some bonuses over time:
- No one can remove any part of the armor, forcefully or otherwise, including the cursed character.
- The cursed character gets a -2 to their armor check penalty (ACP). For each week, they get an additional -1 to their armor check penalty until it reaches zero.
- They get a bonus against sunder attempts from those attempting to break the armor. After some time, it is considered a part of them and is no longer susceptible to sunder attempts or effects.
- They become immune to (or get a 50% miss chance against) critical hits and sneak attack damage (GM’s pick).
- The armor gives the cursed character an extra ability they possess. For example, extra rounds of rage, an extra sneak attack die, and extra spell slot, etc.
- They no longer need to eat or drink.
- They no longer need to breathe.
- They no longer need to sleep.
After all of the positive effects take place, the truly negative, and ultimately deadly, effects start to set in.
The character starts feeling uncomfortable. Their movements become stiff and jerky. They start lumbering more than walking. Moving becomes difficult. They are slowly becoming an inanimate piece of armor with a locked weapon.
They start taking the following penalties:
- They take -5 ft to their movement speed until they can no longer walk.
- They become stiff and cannot interact with the world around them properly. Their body becomes paralyzed, only allowing them to look around and talk.
- Their mouth becomes stiffer and stiffer until they lose the ability to speak.
After that, their eyes start to fade. After a short while, their eyes disappear. The armor is hollow, proving it is now simply a magical weapon and powerful suit of armor. The armor and bound weapon keep all of their magical properties and bonuses.
The curse does not stay with the armor, allowing anyone to wear it and use the attached weapon.
The next wearer is not cursed. The curse ends with the life of the previous owner. If the curse is lifted before the character dies, the armor loses all of its magical abilities and returns to what it was before the curse took place, for the magical abilities were coming from the soul of the wearer.
This curse can be extra creepy if you let your players find a magical piece of armor with a locked weapon and have one of them use it before anything about the curse is known.
For all of these curses, make the Remove Curse DC appropriate for your players at their level. Alternatively, you can make the DC way too high and make the curse part of a quest that involves a lot of role-playing and plot moving (my preferred method of curing a curse).
I hope you enjoyed these fun ways to break the norm. Tell me about your favorite curses. If enough people take interest in it, I’ll do a connected post about situations where you can curse your players and what it will take to cure them of it. Contact me on Twitter, @RexiconJesse or by old fashion email, email@example.com. I also post these on Reddit (RexiconJesse), so you can comment on those threads as well.