There’s some talk over at Critical Hits about cursed items, and whether or not they have a place in 4e. Personally, I really like the idea of cursed items, but I’m not a fan of how previous editions handled them. I don’t like items that are just arbitrarily bad and nearly impossible to get rid of; that’s not fun for anyone. What I do like are items that give power for a price.
For my money, these rules work pretty well for modeling cursed items in 4e. I like the idea of magic items that are somewhat more potent than others at their level, but come with a trade-off that could occasionally screw you. However, I’d probably make one change to the way cursed items worked in my own game: I’d make the effect of the curse inextricably tied to the most potent aspect of the item.
I’ve mentioned in the past that I like the idea of aspects in D&D, though the implementation in my own game left something to be desired. I think that cursed items are a perfect place to use aspect-like mechanics; namely, the ‘compel’ action that the GM can use in games like Spirit of the Century. Effectively, the cursed item would have an aspect that could be compelled from time to time by the DM, forcing the player to act in a certain way . . . if he accepts the power that comes with the compel. Here’s an example of what I mean.
The Blood-Soaked Blade
Considered an ill omen by most, the blood-soaked blade demands to be soaked in the blood of the innocent, but grants power in exchange
Weapon: Light Blade, Heavy Blade
Critical: +1d6 necrotic damage, or +1d12 necrotic damage if the weapon’s curse is active.
Enhancement: +1 attack rolls and damage rolls
Property: This item gains a +2 item bonus on damage rolls against bloodied targets while the curse is active.
Power (Encounter): Free action. Use this power when you hit with the weapon. The target takes ongoing 5 damage and you can spend a healing surge. This power can only be used while the curse is active.
Curse: The blood-soaked blade demands to be soaked in the blood of the innocent. In order to activate the curse, you must slay a sentient, innocent being. This causes the curse to become active until the start of your next short rest. If, in addition, you spend a short rest (5 minutes) bathing the blade in the innocent’s blood, the curse becomes active until the start of your next extended rest.
In retrospect, the curse on this item bears only a passing resemblance to a true compel, though the idea is the same: do something that the item wants you to do, and you’ll be rewarded. In the case of the blood-soaked blade, you are offered fairly considerable combat prowess (extra damage against bloodied targets, extra crit damage, and an encounter power that deals ongoing damage and heals you), but in order to gain access to any of it, you have to actively engage in an act that is unequivocally evil. If you don’t satisfy the curse, you’ve effectively got a +1 magic sword, and not much else.
If you hand out a weapon like this, try to make sure it falls into the hands of someone with an alignment and personality opposed to to such an act, and tempt the hell out of them. Play up the weapons malevolent influence, suggesting courses of action to the player (in the voice of the weapon) that would allow the player to satisfy the curse. If you really want to put the screws to the player, put them in a situation where those powers would come in really handy, and let them know about the situation beforehand so that they have the opportunity to satisfy the curse.