What better way for Ghostlore to return from a holiday hiatus than on the most cursed day of the year, Friday the 13th! As an enthusiast of all things eerie, it seemed very apt. This most unlucky day got me thinking about curses. Are they just bad luck? A silly superstition? A self-fulfilling prophecy? Or are they something more nefarious?
The only thing I know for certain about curses is that I really enjoy inflicting them on my TTRPG players! It keeps them on their toes and injects a little disorder into the game. It also gives them an unexpected challenge and possibly a quest to rid themselves of said curse.
But how do you go about cursing players without them growing suspicious and avoiding the curse trigger altogether? In this article I’ll give ideas about how a character becomes cursed, rather than what the effect of that curse is. I’m all for creating innovative new ways to hex characters. But in a pinch, you can never go wrong with these classics…
1. A Consequence Of Grave Robbing
The ultimate, classic way someone gets cursed. It even has lots of real-world instances, most famously the curse of King Tutankhamun. A grave robbing curse is really easy to include in tabletop role-playing games. Adventuring parties always find themselves in some tomb or another. And for whatever reason, they have no problem taking whatever they find while exploring. Any person that wants to be buried with all their earthly riches has absolutely placed a curse on them to deter potential thieves.
2. Handling A Cursed Object
This one is the quintessential reason that most players are hesitant to touch anything with their bare hands in game. That’s why you have to make whatever object you’ve cursed extra enticing or unassuming. Players are generally more cautious when the item basically screams, “Please touch me, I’m cursed”. Cursed items usually have both positive and negative effects on players. Once they understand the nature of the object, they can choose to remove the curse or remain under the item’s influence.
3. Offending A Secret Spellcaster
This is why you should generally be nice to people you don’t know. Literally anyone could be a secret practitioner of dark witchcraft. All they need is a spell book and ill intent. This curse method is fun to wield against players who mistreat NPCs that they don’t perceive as threats. It’s even better if an NPC never reveals themselves as the source, making the players totally unaware of what’s happening to them and why. As the sacred doctrine goes: When you fuck around, you find out.
4. Wrath Of A Higher Power
What’s worse than being the target of a witch’s ire? Being in bad graces with a vengeful god! Gods, demigods, and beings from other planes of existence operate on a different level. They can pull all sorts of strings to ensure that you have a bad day. To be honest, the fact that a mortal is even negatively on a god’s radar indicates a serious misstep on their part. The best part about this curse method is that standard “curse breaking” procedures simply won’t cut it.
5. Entering A Cursed Location
Places can become cursed just as easily as objects. Evil actions performed within a space such as black magic, murders, desecration, and sacrifices can leave dark metaphysical stains. When an unsuspecting person enters a cursed location, that negative energy can leach into them. Functionally, you can treat this like any other trapped room in your game. But instead of poisoned darts or a blast of fire the character receives a much nastier, lasting ailment.
6. Cursed Enemy Attacks
Some monsters have attacks that inflict a curse-like effect on their victims. However, they aren’t always curses in the traditional sense. These attacks can petrify targets, produce wounds that cannot heal, are laced with a deadly poison, temporarily reduce hit points, age a victim by several years, etc. It’s the most straightforward way to ‘curse’ a player. These types of ailments are usually easy to recover from. However, they do present a minor inconvenience to players.
7. Haunted By Spirits
Looking for a game master idea that is pure evil? Make a player believe that they are cursed to have bad luck. In reality, all of their misfortunes are the result of a spiritual entity that’s attached itself to them. It can be a ghost, demon, or any other invisible pest you can think of. Whatever the case, it’s a malicious spirit that has latched onto the character. After they’ve tried everything to have the curse lifted, reveal that they were never technically cursed in the first place.
8. Marked By A Secret Society
Having a secret society be obsessed with you is a curse in and of itself. The player character of their fixation might be a prophesied chosen one, the perfect sacrifice, a catalyst for their final ritual, or a reincarnation of their leader. Whatever the case, they’ll go out of their way to make sure that the player’s (ideally unaware) character is where they want, when they want, doing what they want. The lengths they’ll go to from the shadows to get what they need from their target will definitely feel like a curse.
9. The Byproduct Of Exposure
Lingering curses brought on by exposure to magical pathogens or lifeforms can lend a more horror based flair to your campaign. The best examples of this would be werewolf transformation via a lycanthropy curse or assimilation into a hive mind. This type of curse is scary because it changes the physiology, and oftentimes motivations, of the player’s character. If you go this route, it’s a good idea to make it really difficult to remove the curse. That’ll give the curse of exposure some weight and generate fear around it.
10. Ignoring Local Superstitions
When an ominous stranger warns you of bad luck befalling anyone who doesn’t abide by the local superstitions…maybe listen? Including superstitions for your campaign is a fun way to flavor the setting. But making the consequence of not following the superstition real generally results in hilarity. This is even more true when the superstition is especially silly or outlandish. For instance: Drop some coins in the village wishing well when you see it or belch uncontrollably for three days. And then it actually happens? Iconic.
11. Victim Of An Urban Legend
Urban legend curses are similar to local superstitions, but with some key differences. Superstitious curses are the byproduct of a commonly-held belief in your campaign. However, a curse that results from an urban legend is usually the direct result of an evil entity inflicting harm on others. Think the Bloody Mary, La Llorona, or that dude with the hook. You can pique your players’ curiosity with rumors in the game and then have the legend be true. It’s always fun to throw a cursed cryptid in the mix!
12. Having Cursed Ancestors
This one’s the most messed up because a player usually can’t control what their family has done in the past. However, including an inherited curse could be a great story plot point for your campaign. It is very versatile. You could have the character be aware of the curse, on a quest to rid their family from it. You can have the family curse trigger when the cause recognizes the player as a descendant. Even have the character be the first victim of the curse, and it carries down to their children!
13. A Cursed Holiday
The whole reason for this article! Consider including a holiday in your campaign that is known for bad luck, like Friday the 13th. It’s a set 24 hours to mess with your players. Make them roll everything at a disadvantage. Enforce double penalties for natural ones. Reverse their rolls so their high rolls fail and low rolls succeed. Make their spells go haywire and weapons misfire. Have their purses discreetly rip and gradually drop coins until they notice. There’s no limit to the chaos you can create when the entire day is a curse!
If you made it to the end of this article, you are now cursed. Until next time, stay creepy and happy gaming.