Curses as Skill Challenges

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on May 16, 2011

One of the differences between 4e D&D and other editions is the elimination of penalties. Everything is expressed as a positive. Rather than suffer a -2 penalty to your AC when you’re prone your opponents receives a +2 bonus to attacks made against you because you’re granting combat advantage. Sure it’s the same thing, but there’s a lot to be said for keeping things positive. With all modifiers expressed as positives, it’s up to the attacker to keep track of them and add them when appropriate. This makes things a lot easier for everyone since you know that none of your defenses will ever get lower. Your AC of 15 remains an AC of 15, even if you’re prone.

By eliminating penalties and negatives from D&D, curses – especially cursed items – have disappeared from the game. We no longer have cursed items in the traditional sense because they’ve always imposed negative penalties. Where a normal magical +1 sword provides a positive modifier, a cursed weapon (or a -1 sword) imposes a -1 penalty in much the same way. But since 4e D&D doesn’t have negative modifiers this kind of item doesn’t really work in the way that it did in previous editions.

Just because the mechanics don’t easily support permanent penalties, curses and cursed items shouldn’t be eliminated from D&D. There are still a lot of good ways to introduce curses and use them in you game. However, instead of imposing a mechanical penalty like -1 to attacks made by the poor PC unfortunate enough to grasp the cursed weapon, think bigger and apply the “penalty” in a more abstract way.

This discussion of curses shouldn’t be confused with the Warlock’s ability to curse enemies during combat. This type of curse is temporary and doesn’t usually impose any hardship on the recipient. It’s just a way for the Warlock to designate foes and inflict more harm to them. At the end of a battle the Warlock’s curse dissipates from any survivors. The kind of curse I’m talking about is a lot more permanent and doesn’t just fade away on its own.

Even the word curse was removed from the e4 D&D (except for the aforementioned Warlock’s curse). For example a Werewolf used to be considered cursed, but now they’re not cursed they are afflicted with Lycanthrope. It may seem like merely semantics at the end of the day, but it does leave the door open for a discussion on actual curses.

Introducing a curse to your camping can be a great way to kick off the next leg of your story arc. The curse could be something that affects a PC (or the entire party) directly. I’d recommend making it something that will come into play during the role-playing and not the combat (at least not during every combat). The kind of curse I’m thinking of includes things like having all of their hair fall out; their skin colour changing to an unnatural hew; or a repugnant scent that they cannot wash away. These are all rather tame examples, but serve to illustrate my point.

Curses in this manner shouldn’t impose any permanent mechanical deficiencies like the -1 to attacks of editions past. This just angers players and makes recordkeeping more difficult. However, a symptom of the curse that rears its ugly head occasionally is certainly fair game, and can serve as a good reminder if the party seems to be taking the curse lightly. For example, they may begin every combat slowed until they save or they may have a vulnerability to a specific damage type when in the presence of Fey creatures.

Of course you can introduce curses that don’t affect the PCs directly. The party could learn about a cursed village or even a cursed NPC. Getting the party involved should be easy enough. It could be as simple as hiring them to investigate or just appealing to their sense of doing the right thing in the face of evil. In this case the curse can certainly be more abstract since it won’t impact the PCs directly. A cursed King that can’t do something vital to his wellbeing like eating or sleeping, or a village afflicted with a curse where none of the locals can bear children, should all be drastic enough to get the PCs’ attention.

Once you’ve decided to introduce a curse, you need to make sure that the PCs understand that removing it is possible (but not necessarily easy). This is where a skill challenge becomes an integral part of the adventure.

In most cases a skill challenge has very defined boundaries with a specific goal. In this case the goal is removing the curse. In order to give the curse the power it needs to scare and motivate the PCs, the resolution shouldn’t be a simple as making a few skill checks. The method for achieving complete success should be a lot more complex than the traditional skill challenge.

Skill Challenge: Removing the Curse

This kind of skill challenge may take many sessions to complete. Be sure to keep the PCs very well informed of how their doing and what is still required of them. If they loose focus and can’t see where this is leading then the entire skill challenge will likely fail. I recommend breaking the larger challenge into three phases. Within each phase there will likely be smaller skill challenges that will directly affect the outcome of the larger objective.

Phase 1 – Discovery

During the discovery phase the PCs are trying to figure out what’s going one. This will usually be accomplished by first-hand observation, especially if the PCs themselves are cursed. During this phase the PCs should get a sense of what the curse does, how it will affect them and how long they have to find a way to remove the curse. This phase will likely only require a couple of successes to complete.

Phase 2 – Investigation

The investigation phase is where the bulk of the skill checks are required. During this phase the PCs, now armed with information on what’s happening, will look for ways to counteract the problem. Depending on what the curse does they might even find a way to suppress it for short periods. Doing so could even be a mini-skill challenge, and success here could count as one success in the larger removing the curse skill challenge.

If the curse causes the PCs to glow brightly when in moonlight and they have to sneak somewhere at night, they could learn a way to suppress the glowing long enough for them to cut across the open field undetected.

If the curse makes the PCs vulnerable to necrotic damage and they know that they’ll be fighting undead, maybe one PC can chant prayers during combat, effectively taking them out of the fight, but making it easier for his companions to defeat the undead.

Providing this kind of reward at the mid-point of the larger skill challenge lets the PCs know that they’re on the right track and doesn’t make it feel like the bigger goal is still so far away. Little rewards like this keep players engaged.

During the final part of the investigation phase the PCs should learn the ultimate key to removing the curse. It may not be something that they can do alone or that is even within their power. Finding an NPC capable of completing the final task necessary for removing the curse may be another mini-skill challenge within the larger one.

Phase 3 – Removal

The removal phase is the climax of the skill challenge, and likely the adventure arc. Although the guidelines for skill challenges usually indicate that the ultimate success or failure should never be tied directly to one skill check, in this case bending that rule my be necessary. If the curse was easy to remove then it wouldn’t require the PCs getting involved.

Removing the curse should be difficult. By tying it directly to one specific task or action (as discovered in the final stages of the investigation phase) the PCs may find that they cannot overcome it alone. If this is the case then they should have a chance to enlist the aid of someone who is capable of completing the check.

The most common solution for removing a curse will likely be a ritual. During the investigation phase the PCs gathered the necessary components and now they’re ready to finish the job and remove the curse. Depending on the nature of the curse Arcana, Heal, Nature, or Religion checks may be required. This should also have been discovered during the investigation phase.

Removing the curse needs to be a spectacle. Even though it may only require one really difficult skill check it’s important to build up the scene. If the curse was deliberately imposed by some evil force, perhaps they appear to try and stop the PCs form removing the curse. If the PCs have worked through many encounters and gaming sessions to complete this success then it’s your job as the DM to ensure that they feel the reward and the outcome were worth the challenge.

Gone are the days of the cursed -1 sword, but that doesn’t mean that curses are gone all together. Introducing a curse to your game as the main focus or just a sub-plot is easy to do and can make for some really memorable situations. So the next time you’re really struggling for a good adventure hook, consider cursing… the PCs.

Have you use curses in your game? How did you handle it? What means did you introduce for removing the curse? What did the players think after all was said and done? Has anyone used cursed weapons (like the -1 sword) in 4e D&D? How did that go over?

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1 Kilsek May 16, 2011 at 3:07 pm

If I want a unique and powerful magical element in 4e, I now simply go with its nature and origine being ancient and divine or primordial. In game terms, that means a divine or primordial curse, plague, or even poison that “mortal” or “known” means of combating simply do not work – with plenty of clues that even the gods and primordials either feared or couldn’t control it in the ancient past either.

This approach makes a for a great tier- or campaign-long storytelling tool, rich with atmosphere, history and adventure possibilities. The maxim of “there’s always something more powerful” is important, and it can even apply to 4e’s primordials and gods!

2 sully May 16, 2011 at 10:29 pm

D&D 4e has not completely eliminated negative modifiers. There are several “diseases”, in particular different incarnations of Filth Fever but also others, that apply negative modifiers to AC, NADs, attack rolls, and damage.

That being said, I do really like the idea of using an extended skill challenge to break a curse. I’m going to be taking a look at some old-school cursed weapons and such and thinking of how they could work in 4e.

3 Ameron May 17, 2011 at 11:12 am

Your approach to curses is certainly unique and has a lot of merit. I like it. I don’t know if I’d apply a curse in the sense that I’ve described above quite that broadly because as you mention it’s likely that there is no way to remove or counteract it, especially if it’s something that befuddled the very gods themselves. But it’s certainly a good idea for a long-term adventure arc.

Busted. You’re right, there are still a few examples of negatives in 4e, but I’ve found that they are exceptionally rare and certainly the exception and not the norm (which was certainly not the case in previous editions).

I’ve toyed with introducing a cursed -1 sword to my game but I just see it angering the player too much. However, one other side effect of cursed weapons was that players can’t leave them behind. I remember an awesome encounter where a character with a cursed sword agreed to a cage match in which neither combatant was allowed to use weapons. As soon as the fight began the cursed item popped into the character’s hand. The -1 to attack was a fair price to pay for inflicting sword damage (1d10 + Str -1 in this case) rather than fist damage (which I believe was between 2-4 points). I was impressed with the player’s creative way to turn the otherwise bad cures into a huge positive.

4 Sully May 17, 2011 at 12:35 pm

@Ameron: the issue of players getting upset by getting a cursed item is definitely one of the reasons these items have been removed from the 4E game, and I totally understand that, from the R&D viewpoint. The old-school game was full of cursed items, but treasure was always supposed to be random. If it was there, it was there. The DM was innocent: blame the dice for putting it there. I miss that. It makes no sense for all magic items to be beneficial in nature, but that’s the direction the game has gone. Getting rid of a cursed item often required high-level magic; a quest in and of itself.

5 @Sean_Mc May 17, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Yeah, I see what you’re saying about cursed items, but to expand on Sully’s comment, there are quite a number of negative modifiers that can be applied. Most of the status effects give a negative to either attacks, defenses, or both. Being marked gives you a -2 to attack anybody else as well. A few powers give negatives on a hit too.

Like I said, I get what you’re saying about cursed items, and more long-term penalties though. And creating new challenges for players is always a good thing!

6 wonnacottyledon May 23, 2011 at 8:51 pm

I too noticed a dearth of curses in 4e, especially in regards to the monsters who reproduce in that way, namely Lycanthropes and Vampires. Like everyone else here, I agree that it’s probably a good thing rather than not, especially from the player standpoint, but cursed weapons/objects were some of my favorite foibles to avoid in earlier D&D editions. Since way back in middle school with an especially spiteful DM, we as players were keenly aware of the likelihood that getting a “really well-balanced” will bite your hand when you attack enemies. While it was really, REALLY annoying, curses were one of those classic fairytale elements we came to expect.

A while back, I ran a campaign of pirates on the high seas. While scoping out ships in a harbor that the PCs could potentially steal, the fine aquamarine sails of a small pinnace caught the group captain’s eye. It’s fine sailing qualities were exemplified as it was used to escape the harbor’s patrol, but when the captain couldn’t remove his hand from the tiller when they docked again, things got quite tense. Turned out that the ship belonged to a cabal of seafaring magi who had cursed the tiller as a security measure. Also, three ships of the same make and decoration were approaching on the horizon.

Initially, the group was perplexed and angry, but quick thinking (and accurate roleplaying) by the brutish fighter broke the tiller into pieces and gave the captain a new permanent club. Later the captain (also a mage) whittled the club down to a wand that he enchanted to become an implement. Not necessarily D&D canon for the rules, but a creative and entirely unexpected way that the party turned a hindrance into a boon.

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