Tuesday, July 11, 2017

The Curse of Stupidity

I've seen a number of OSR blogs (rightly) complain of the utterly boring nature of D&D magic weapons.  Plenty of posts have been made offering (welcome) replacements for the tired-as-fuck sword +1.  Doot-dee-doo, OSR to the rescue!

So tired of these

But you know what's dumber than a +1 sword?  A fucking -1 sword.

Granted, you don't see them around much anymore.  Cursed magic items were more of a staple of the old days.  Back then, you never knew if a treasure hoard contained a cursed sword that would penalize you in battle and not allow itself to be thrown away.  You still see this in classic fantasy roguelikes, but that's because it makes item identification a strategic consideration in a world that never made sense to begin with.

And let's face it, of the many nonsensical conventions of OD&D, few made less sense than cursed magic items.  At least how they were used; consider keeping around a really shitty sword that you couldn't drop as a bit of sad revenge against successful burglars.  

"Crap, why can't I put this thing down?"

Let's not forget that magic item creation was a non-trivial act, even for cursed longswords.  Because if it was really easy to make a -1 morning star, then OK, you really should leave a few of those lying around for laughs.  But no, these were probably expensive things that took a high-level wizard a month or two of fasting in a moor.  It's a lot easier to make a sword that actually works.

That doesn't mean there's no role for cursed magic items.  In fact, this is another direction that OSR has been trending already - the idea being that almost all magic items are cursed.  The best kind of curse is a terrible price that must be paid for the use of the item's power.

This is so much better than a -1 sword that it's almost unquantifiable.  Let's enumerate why this is so:

  • Antecedents in fantasy literature: Stormbringer (Elric's sword), The One Ring (an obscure series), etc.
  • It creates a new strategic consideration
  • It's a nice way of compelling the PC to hold onto a cursed item without being heavy-handed
  • It also provides a nice way to keep magic items from being too powerful without something boring like charges
  • It's badass!

Too bad I couldn't find the German cover for maximum metal

Now, if I was a great OSR blogger, I'd have a cool table for rolling random curses, plus a lightweight system of matching them to powers.  But...nah.  First of all, that sounds like a lot of work.  But more importantly, you really don't need a table for this.  You want to be poetic, start with something cool and metal, and then find a reasonable mechanic for it.  

So that's my little OSR musing of the day: get rid of any leftover -1 swords and replace all your magic items with Stormbringers.


  1. I can't remember where I first saw the idea that cursed items were the result of a failed attempt to make a regular item. My idiot apprentice mislabeled the eye of salamander jar as eye of newt and now the luckstone I was making is instead so very heavy....

  2. That rings a bell. But it still doesn't explain why anyone would keep a cursed sword. One day you go to pick up a blade, and oops, you grabbed the wrong one, and now you can't put it down till you find a cleric.

    Also, it's weird that so many of these cursed items can't simply be dropped if that isn't intentional.