Loke was angry as the dwarf had been, because he had perforce to part with the magic ring, and ere he went his way he spoke fiercely to Hreidmar, saying: “Thou hast received gold enough now, and my head is safe. But thou shalt never prosper, nor shall thy sons prosper after thee. Take thou with the gold the curse that follows it.”
— Donald A. Mackenzie, “Teutonic Myth and Legend, Chapter XXV: The Doom of the Volsungs”
Taking a page from Grognardia, let’s use Friday the 13th—that ill-starred day!—as an excuse to discuss curses in D&D.
The longest-term D&D character I ever played was Martin the Green, a “watch-mage” from an academy of magic patterned after the school on Roke Island in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea stories. Taking it upon himself to destroy a powerful necromantic artifact—the spellbook of an undying centuries-old necromancer of his own order—he found his flesh slowly rotting away. He grew morose and withdrawn, stating more and more often of his own inevitable doom. It was a dark story made darker by the curse, but that just made his victory all the sweeter when I made that last saving throw for Martin to endure the chill of the Negative Material Plane just long enough to destroy the book and cripple the necromancer’s power, albeit at the cost of his own life.
In my current Red Box game, a PC cleric perused a stack of scrolls acquired from a magician’s abandoned workroom, only to discover one was cursed. He found himself with a constant, terrible sense of being watched; I kept telling him that “there is something on your back,” though neither he nor anyone else could see anything there. Aside from healing more slowly as the curse sapped his life force, he had trouble sleeping and suffered terrible nightmares. Alas, the loot from the workroom sufficed to procure a remove curse spell from a temple elder.
The PCs have also looted the altars of two Chaos cults, only to discover that the jeweled altar pieces were cursed. In both cases, the character carrying the loot was able to hold off the curse long enough to reach a temple and have the curse removed. Had he failed his saving throw, the fact that he’s the highest-level fighter in the group with the best magical weapon would have resulted in his single-handedly slaughtering the rest of the party and offering up their souls to the Chaos gods!
And in Tavis’s White Box game, we’ve had a few items that might be regarded as cursed, such as the Chaotic intelligent sword that turned our elven ranger to the service of Chaos, and a sentient fish-shaped amulet with an unfortunate habit of talking far too loudly while we’re adventuring.
“If you are so cursed wise you should know already,” growled the Argive, unmollified. Then his gaze clouded as he cast back over his tangled trail. “Some magician has cursed me.” he muttered. “As I rode back from my triumph over Erech, my scar-horse screamed and shied at Something none saw but he. Then my dreams grew strange and monstrous. In the darkness of my chamber, wings rustled and feet padded stealthily. Yesterday a woman at a feast went mad and tried to knife me. Later an adder sprang out of empty air and struck at me. Then, this night, she men call Lilitu came to my chamber and mocked me with awful laughter-”
— Robert E. Howard, “The House of Arabu”
Here’s some forum threads and other online resources that deal with D&D curses. (Some are for later editions but should still be useful for old-school play.)
“Greeting, O Maranapion,” replied a grave and terrible voice that issued from the maggot-eaten lips. “Indeed, I will grant thee a sign. Even as I, in death, have rotted upon my seat from the foul sorcery which was wrought in the vaults of King Gadeiron, so thou and thy fellows and Gadeiron, living, shall decay and putrefy wholly in an hour, by virtue of the curse that I put upon ye now.”
— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Death of Malygris”
So, how have you used curses in D&D? As a DM, have you handed out cursed items and scrolls, used curse spells, or levied a slain foe’s dying curse upon the PCs? As a player, have your PCs been cursed? What sorts of curses have you encountered in play?