In the midst of working on updating a set of magic items for another DMsGuild release, I am looking to add cursed items. The concept seemed silly to me at first, why would there be an in-fiction reason for someone to spend the substantial costs of magic item creation to make something that is worse than useless? As I pondered the types of drawbacks or penalties a cursed item might inflict, I started to see self-consistent reasons someone might spend resources to make an item that is considered cursed. Let me discuss each in turn, along with providing an example item of its type.
An item created this way would have a curse that limits its power in a way that makes it cheaper to use, less costly to manufacture, or requires less ongoing magic. These items might use the ambient power supply of a dungeon to power them, leaving them useless outside a similarly power-saturated environment. Alternatively, this might be a wand put together in a way that it is cheap to make but will fall apart catastrophically well before its power fails.
Dungeon Bound 100
A Dungeon Bound magic item is one enchanted to rely on an external nexus of power to supply its effects. Outside of an appropriately magical place, it will lose its magical abilities. The base cost of any enchantments covered by this effect are reduced to sixty percent of their normal cost. For every step above uncommon, the cost of the Dungeon Bound enchantment doubles and the ambient magical energies needed increases.
One person’s cursed item is another person’s insurance against the magical item falling into the wrong hands. While this may sometimes coincide with a lower cost such as not bothering to shield the wielder from the heat a fiery enchantment produces if the intended wielder is immune, generally this type of cursed item is not any cheaper to produce. The simplest security are secret keywords and command phrases, but these are only as good as the wielders’ secret keeping abilities. More elaborate security measures inflict penalties or fail to function when used by the unauthorized, usually based on their moral alignment, genealogy, or even intent. Examples of items cursed for security would include a sword that will drain the power of any good creature using it unless they slaughter innocents each day or a protective bauble that disappears from the wielder when they are attacked unless they are of the royal bloodline.
Noble’s Support 3000
This golden broach is a boring piece with a single inlaid pearl of moderate size set in its center. When its attuned wearer is attacked, small shards of force barrier will interpose themselves in the way of the attack. This grants a +2 magical bonus to armor class and saving throws against targeted magical effects. However, if the wearer is not of the specific bloodline the broach was crafted for, the barriers will shatter to add 1d4 force damage to each attack instead of protecting the wearer. A Noble’s Support does not actually check lineages, but is instead controlled by the person who has master privileges over the magical device. The master of each Noble’s Support can designate new masters and allowed users, although adding relatives is much easier. Masters can also remove allowed users but not remove masters, and should the last master die without choosing another, the broach will remain fixed in who it will protect.
This class of cursed item is the central example that most think of when it comes to cursed items, those that are actively harmful to the wearer for the express intent of being harmful. Sometimes deployed in treasure hoards to discourage thieves or as a luring trap in dungeons, the rumors of such items vastly outnumber their actual appearance because of the costliness and danger of creating a purely harmful magic item. However, to beings with nearly limitless time and resources, the creation of retributive items may be commonplace, especially in regards to circulating look-alikes of items they would rather see disused. These items might include a lamp appearing to contain a genie that instead creates powerful delusions in the mind of those who use it or a circlet that instead of granting its wielder the power to compel others, leaves them defenseless against compulsion by others.
Crown of Compulsion 6000
This glittering crown of golden briar branches refuses to sit comfortably on top of its wielders head. Three times each short rest, the wearer can cast Command as the spell with a save DC of 12. Once each long rest they may make a proclamation, which functions as Suggestion, DC 14, with its duration of up to eight hours halved for each target beyond the first, whether the spell if effective or not. When an enchantment effect created by the wearer ends, creatures affected by it must make a save against the spell DC or hey will rationalize away their compelled actions instead of recognizing the enchantment effect. Creatures compelled to act against their moral beliefs automatically succeed on this save.
Crown of Constraint 1000
Appearing as a crown of golden briars, like a Crown of Compulsion, once the attuned wearer attempts to use its active abilities the crown will reveal itself to all others except the wearer as a crown of moldy thorns. After being revealed, the wearer will be unable to remove the crown without the help of a curse breaking effect of 4th level or higher. Once each short rest, they must follow the words of a hostile creature as if the creature had successfully cast Command on them, otherwise they can gain no benefit from the short rest. Once each long rest, they must do what a hostile creature tells them to do as if the creature had successfully cast Suggestion on them or else they can gain no benefit from a long rest.
Curse or Boon?
A number of items considered cursed are only cursed from a certain point of view. These are items that have effects that are generally harmful except in specific situations or alternatively are on net harmful but occasionally worth the trade-off. An amulet that cannot be easily removed once donned that conjures water in the lungs of its wearer would be deadly to most creatures but a great boon to amphibious ones who would risk asphyxiation if the amulet was easy to remove by opponents. A magical staff that drains life force from the wielder to empower spells would generally be dangerous, but in dire situations the permanent drain may be worth the temporary boost.
Drowned Choker 3000
A Drowned Choker appears as one of many types of amulets that would normally allow their wearer to breathe underwater. Once the wearer is submerged, the amulet becomes impossible to remove and begins to fill the user’s lungs or breathing organs with water. If the wearer spends an movement action to succeed on a Constitution save, DC 12, they can cough up a cup of water to delay drowning for one round. The amulet, once activated, cannot be removed except by a remove curse effect of 3rd level or higher.
Corruption and Sabotage
In some cases, the cursed item will have started its life as a normal item but then became twisted away from its original functionality. Time and magically active environments can damage items that most of the time results in unravelling the enchantment, but sometimes will instead shift the magic to something harmful or useless. Some magical creatures, extraplanar beings, or magic users will damage an item on purpose to either deny the item to others, break down a threat, or ruin a magic item opposed to their morals. A wand of healing that had been dropped in an demonic plane now increasing the aggression of the target or a magical sawblade sabotaged by dryads to launch deadly wooden flechettes at millworkers when used to cut lumber would both be examples of this type of cursed item.
Wand of Fury 300
This wand of healing, having been abandoned in a place of demonic power has had its shaft turn grey and a subtle steak of red winds its way through the soft blue energies surrounding it. Each day it regains 1d6 charges up to its 7 charge maximum. Each charge can be used to cast a Cure Wounds spell to heal the target for 3d4+6 hit points of healing. However, the target must make a Wisdom save, DC 15, or fly into a rage. They must make an targeted attack against another creature each turn or take 1d6 damage. The rage lasts for 1d4 minutes.
The weirdest category of cursed item, is itself a subset of magical items created accidentally. Due to their unintentional design, they often have features that are not planned out, abilities that clash, or errant effects. Some of these are so aberrant or antithetical to the common usage of the item that they are considered cursed. For example, a component thought to be a golden wand core is actually gold coated lead so when it was made into a wand of magic missiles, the missiles travel for a few feet before dropping hard to the ground while the user is thrown back a dozen feet in recoil. Another example is a failed summoning ritual in the room adjacent to an armory resulted in a suit of armor attempting to resize itself when donned, except that it resizes to fit one of the targets of the summon spell, a random size, which causes harm to the wearer if it is too small.
Wand of Leaden Missiles 200
This slender wooden rod is weighted with a metal core and affixed with iron sights for aiming. The magic missiles cast from this wand have an unusual weight, giving them a maximum range of five feet but also increasing their damage to 1d8+1. When used, the wielder of this wand must make a Strength save, DC 13, or be flung backwards 10 feet. The wand regains all 7 charges each day and each casting fires a single, unerring magical bolt of force.