Too often, we find ourselves thumbing through a list of cursed items, and nearly to the last they exist as a kind of codified practical joke. Now, I enjoy the legacy of the game’s origins as much as the next guy, but so much has changed since those early days. The question we should ask ourselves is, what do cursed items say about our setting of choice?
Why throw in a shiny object that zaps you any time you wobble it about? Magic items need not be a bothersome handicap or deadly debilitation, but rather a deeper element of a character’s growth and development. A man cursed to perpetually wear his armor is not so much annoyed by it as he is defined by the experience, and perhaps doing it out of some sense of honor or penitence. He choses to endure the curse, and may even refuse to have the curse lifted until he feels the time is right.
Consider the following item.
Wondrous Item- Rare
This shirt is composed entirely of coarse woven animal hairs. The workmanship, though good, renders this shirt offensive to both the eyes and to the skin. Anyone wearing this shirt halves healing received from short rests, and heal 1/4 of their hit dice maximum during a long rest (but still regain full hit points).
If you are a Cleric, and you don no other armor, you may consider any healing spells to have rolled the maximum amount possible. Healing spells that target you are considered to have rolled the minimum amount. This does not affect static healing (such as Lay on Hands). Monks may not recover ki points while wearing this armor.
Alternately, if you are an ex-Cleric of good alignment, you may wear the hair shirt to retain some of your powers. You have access to clerical abilities equal to those of a Cleric of half your ex-Cleric levels.
This item may not be removed without either the use of a remove curse spell, or upon the completion of a geas spell cast by a cleric of the same religion that you follow. Wearing this shirt prevents the benefits of any armor or spell or effect that grants armor, but does not interfere with other bonuses to armor class.
The hair shirt might be seen as a boon, but for someone who cared enough would realize that their character is wearing a torture device. Honestly, what does that say about this character? You don’t have to feel bad about it, but it should make you think. What led this person to do such a thing?*
There is also an aspect to this particular cursed item that could be employed as a plot devices, in the sense it could compel the cursed being to pursue a task; in this case, to redeem themselves, and see the potential road to atonement. Such an item may be the most utile for players and DM’s alike, given that they do not always remove choice, they merely present an opportunity. This kind of cursed item could turn a boring NPC into a memorable one.
And neither should any curse hinder the player any more than necessary; maybe the curse sword of prophecy compels the wielder to seek the end of tyranny, and it does so by whispering in its owner’s ear at night. This does not carry any specific penalty or hindrance, but it is a way to express a prominent motivation, and it doesn’t hamper the player’s effectiveness at the table.
While demons and sadists might work hard to litter the world with cursed items for their own sake, curses are not often handed down lightly. They are the result of a serious transgression, or an enduring vengeance. The gods themselves may twist the power of an heirloom to spurn the descendants of a fallen priest, and a dying archmage may channel his dark and dying soul into a potent magical bauble. These are not opportunities to play “gotcha” with your players, but rather a time to fill your world with style and personality.
It’s time to stop looking at your character as a collection of mathematically relevant game modifiers, and start realizing that the things they do and obtain are relevant to the story. That is the story that you are telling, through your actions, reactions, and the choices you make at every session.
*Ask Sir Thomas Moore.