With this being Friday the 13th, I figured I’d roll with a post about curses. There are a multitude of reasons (some with more legitimacy than others) on why we’re so afraid of Friday the 13th. The historical event that I think makes the most sense is the capture and eventual downfall of the Knights Templar. The dawn raids on various Templar holdings and strongholds throughout France occurred on Friday, October the 13th in 1307 and were carried out under the orders of King Philip IV of France with approval by Pope Clement V. When the Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay, was finally executed nearly seven years later, it is rumored he threw forth a curse from his execution pyre before he slowly roasted to death.
The curse was aimed at King Philip IV and his descendants as well as Pope Clement V. Of course, the veracity of claims of a man speaking forth a curse while his lungs filled with smoke is in question, but the following events are clearly documented in history books. Pope Clement V died of a long-running illness within a year. Also within that same year, King Philip IV died suddenly of a stroke. Following Philip’s death, four Capetians (Philip’s long-standing noble family) sat on and died in the throne of France. All of them were direct descendants of Philip. This took roughly fourteen years to transpire, but after the fourth death, the centuries-old House of Capet suffered from an absolute collapse and faded out of power.
That’s a potent curse there! Jacques de Molay took down a pope and an entire French royal line with his final utterances. (Assuming, of course, curses are real and you buy this story.) It’s all of the above that led me to traverse the mental map from Friday the 13th to how we can be more creative in our use of curses within roleplaying games.
Now, let’s jump into RPGs now, shall we? That’s where curses exist and are real to our characters.
I’ve taken a bit of a historical trip into the “Bestow Curse” spell from D&D through the ages. The spell, quite honestly, hasn’t changed much from its early days to the modern incarnation of the game. I won’t bore you with yet another history lesson to demonstrate the subtle shifts of the spell. The effects of the spell include some options where the caster can choose to make ability checks more difficult, or attack/skill checks more difficult, or forcing the target to lose their ability to act 50% of the time.
I’m going to talk about the last option before the other two. I flat-out don’t allow it in my game. It’s off the table. No PC, no NPC, no monster, no Boss Bad Guy, no one, is allowed to pick it. It just doesn’t exist as a house rule of mine. Here’s why: I will not take an option that requires a single die roll (the saving throw) that will effectively negate the existence and purpose of a character half the time on a permanent basis. That’s right. The Bestow Curse spell is permanent. Yeah. Yeah. I know that a Remove Curse spell will remove the curse, but I’ve been that player with a cursed character and the nearest available temple for a Remove Curse was a two-week (now a four-week because I can only move 50% of the time) walk away. It’s crippling and frustrating and all-around not fun. Of course, if I won’t do this to a player via any means, I need to level out the playing field by not allowing them to do it to my critters or NPCs. That’s why it’s completely off the table.
Now, let’s talk about the first two options. They need some flavor! As it stands, it’s a (*yawn* boring) mechanical effect. I’m good with the various mechanical effects that exist for the different versions of D&D throughout the ages. They’re well-balanced, fair, and have an appropriate impact on the game without completely removing a character (thus removing the player) from the game’s main action and high points.
However, I want some spice to my descriptors. I want some evocative descriptions to be thrown across the table when the caster drops a curse on some unlucky person. I need something that will tell me why a particular character or NPC can’t walk more than ten feet without stumbling and almost falling. That’s where creative curses come into play. Let’s drop some examples, shall we?
- May your boot laces always come undone.
- You will always be hungry (or thirsty).
- May your sword’s grip become as slick as a slug’s backside.
- The buckles on your armor will let loose at the worst possible moment.
- A pox upon your face.
- This is taken from Timur’s tomb and may be more appropriate for a plot hook than an individual curse:
- “Whomsoever opens my tomb shall unleash an invader more terrible than I.”
- That back left molar? It’s now in constant pain.
- You will carry the stench of a thousand dung beetles.
And I’ll leave one that (supposedly) comes from China and is entirely appropriate to a roleplaying campaign (for good or ill).
May you live in interesting times.