Wednesday 21 March 2018

Curse You! Or, Putting "Spells and Magic" to Use

When I was in Kyrgyzstan, I'd sometimes come across reams of cassette tape, pulled out of the actual cassette, and hung on shrubbery by somebody's house or at a roadside or on a piece of waste ground. Spools of unnatural, metallic black string spread about in a vaguely menacing way, like the excretions of some predatory cybernetic insect that had just passed by.

I asked some friends about this, and they said that these things weren't usually there by accident. This was modern shamanism at work. If you've got an enemy, get a shaman to record a curse on a cassette recorder. Then unwind the tape and put it near your target's house and the curse will take effect.

I was fascinated by this concept and found the whole thing genuinely creepy - a 21st century Central Asian equivalent of the voodoo doll. There's something I find horribly compelling about the idea of one person taking the trouble to put all the spite and malice they hold against another person into a physical manifestation in that way. You don't just sit at home and stew about Ulan and how he stole your girlfriend/killed your brother/robbed you/eats with his mouth open/whatever it might be. No: you hate that fucker so much you're going to make your hatred take metaphysical effect. That takes some extra special meanness of spirit, doesn't it?

Curses in D&D are uninteresting. There are cursed items (a Sword -1 or whatever, or a ). There are creatures who attack with a curse, like, I suppose, lycanthropes. And there are the reversals of the Bless and Remove Curse spells, which basically inflict the target with annoying negative modifiers for a period of time.

This is a shame, because curses can spur interaction with the game world in a number of ways. First, if a PC is inflicted with a curse they may have to find a certain person to help cure it, or a certain item, and that could require travel and various adventures. Second, if the PCs want to inflict a curse on an enemy, they might have to, again, find help or a certain ingredient to put the curse into effecft. And third, if the PCs are inflicted with a curse but aren't sure by whom, they may want to investigate. Any of those scenarios are great grist for the adventure mill.

The old 2nd edition Spells & Magic supplement had a Random Insanity table that I'd like to crib for curses. It goes like this:

d100 Result
01-15 Delirium
16-20 Disorientation
21-24 Attraction
25-37 Phobia
38-40 Paranoia
41-46 Alienation
47-53 Amnesia
54-61 Hallucinatory insanity
62-64 Melancholia
65-69 Dementia praecox
70-74 Monomania
75-79 Mania
80-81 Manic-depressive
82-89 Hebephrenia
90-95 Catatonia
96-103 Delusional insanity
104-114 Schizophrenia
115-119 Homicidal mania
120-124 Psychic translocation
125+ Pursuit

("Pursuit" being literally pursuit by a demon or spirit or other-dimensional entity or whatever.)

With just a little bit of work, what you have there is a list of interesting curse types, and all you need then do is decide who gets to cast them, in what circumstances they can be cast, what's needed to give them effect, and what's needed to dispel the curse. Or you could do it randomly. Viz, something like this, but with more entries:

Curse must be uttered by…
Ingredient to give effect
Ingredient to dispel
Takes effect by
Young female dwarf
At a new moon
Severed human finger
Blue rose
Speaking the curse in the victim’s presence
Old deaf elf
At dawn
Poison arrow frog
Firebird’s feather
Having the victim read the curse from a scroll
Orc child born on a full moon
At winter solstice
Monkey paw
Dragon scale
Having the victim eat or drink something which the curse has been spoken over
Wizard’s widow
On a mountain top
Having the victim looking in a mirror the curse has been spoken over
Galeb Duhr
At dusk
Piece of meteorite
Having the victim spill blood with a knife the curse has been spoken over
Undead spirit
On a body of water
Peacock’s liver
Ice from a glacier
Automatically once uttered


  1. I really like this idea. Making curses more personal and more mysterious is a good idea. But I have a question. What kind of dice do you roll, because the Table doesn't mention that.

  2. If you mean first edition, there are a few more spells that could be considered curses- Polymorph Other, Flesh to Stone, Cause Disease, and the Charm series all come to mind.

    I find the idea of using real world mental illnesses as curses repugnant. Fortunately there are some excellent OSR and d20 sources that provide many ideas for curses. The best IMO are The Nightmares Underneath and The Practical Enchanter.

    1. Yeah, fair enough, I get that repugnance, but I think cursing somebody is pretty repugnant!

    2. I don't think using physical deformities or inescapable chores (which there are plenty of in the real world) is any less repugnant, to be honest. Or making milk go sour and fields unfruitful. Or any other kind of misery, misfortune, or non-optimal state.

  3. Today you've taught me something both equally fascinating and disturbing. This is great material! Curses recorded on tapes and strung around...would have never thought about it.

    1. That was in the year 1999-2000 ish. I wonder if nowadays they do it via MP3 and record it on a memory card to put through somebody's letter box.