Friday, 27 August 2021

What Is Maleficent Up To?

In Disney's Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent curses the newborn Aurora: before the sun sets on her 16th birthday, the girl will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die.

But, for some reason, having issued the curse, Maleficent turns out to lack all confidence in its power. She apparently spends the next 15 years trying to find Aurora after the good fairies hide her away in the forest, and then, having done so on the eve of the girl's 16th birthday, makes strenuous efforts to appear, with a spinning wheel, in order to force Aurora to touch the needle.

This appears not to be a curse at all, in fact; it is more like a declaration of intent. (And a bizarre one at that: why doesn't she just turn up at the end and kill Aurora outright, given that she knows that Merryweather has cast a partial dispellation of the curse?)

But perhaps this is what a curse really is: not a statement of intent, per se, but a spell which binds both the cursed and the curser to perform a particular sequence of actions through to a desired end. Aurora will encounter a spinning wheel on her 16th birthday, but Maleficent must play her own role in ensuring this in fact transpires. A curse, seen in this way, is something like a willed destiny - a final destination that will come about if only the one issuing the curse makes sure that it does. 

An even more accurate way of putting it is: a curse is a stated plan which will come about if the right actions are performed at the right time. Ordinary plans, no matter how perfect, go wrong because of bad luck. A curse will not (barring interference from fairy godmothers) as long as the curser holds up at his end

This makes fairy tale curses (as opposed to "you lose half your STR for the duration of the curse"-style D&D affairs) potentially, and interestingly, gameable. Magic-users can cast curses, and specify an outcome in doing so, but they also have to specify the steps they need to take to ensure that the outcome becomes real. If they do, the curse is realised. If they fail - too bad, and perhaps additional horrible consequences which follow. Maleficent meets her end having been impaled on a thrown sword. I'm sure that more interesting possibilities could suggest themselves. 


  1. I really like this approach to curses. And of course, you could also try to break the curse by killing the witch. Not very magical, but very 'D&D'.

    Even more, you could also use it for all kind of rituals. 'You can restore life and limb to your fellow figther, but you also need to do this complicated secuence of steps during the course of three weeks'. In my opinion that's better thant 'you cast this particullary powerfull spell and everything is OK now'.

  2. It's almost an anti-geas. Instead of binding the cursed subject, it binds the curser to do the thing. That is an intriguing approach. I like the idea of curses as "statements of intent backed up by magic power."

    @Nirkhuz, perhaps once the curse is underway, its power protects the witch such that simply killing them won't stop it. Instead, the cursed subject must first "foil" the curse process somehow (and then kill the witch).

  3. By chance, after reading this post this morning I then read a 1-page dungeon, "The Diamond of Hishep-Ratep", which incorporates something similar *that essentially places the binding upon the GM*!!! :)

    "Roll for the prophecy [spoken by entombed sages]. This is true Fate, so it will occur as soon as causally possible, and events will conspire over time to take the character to their Fate. Even if an event is caused by Fate, it is still resolved according to the rules; however, if a character escapes their Fate, the prophecy will continue trying until it succeeds.",%20The%20Diamond%20of%20Hishep-Ratep.pdf

  4. There’s the psychological curse inherent in the evil eye (the direct experience of and knowledge of another human’s total malevolence, which is rarely encountered in a really salient way by many strata in developed countries and in those cases doubly shocking, but probably disturbing for everyone, hence the cultural transmission of the evil eye as a curse and as a defensive icon); the memory of this could serve as a psychological curse that makes the receiver uncertain about the intentions of others and the potential for vengeance on the part of the one who stared them.

    In the case of Maleficent, you’re cursed directly with the knowledge of someone’s vengeance. It’s probably intensely burdensome to know that someone is after your blood and bones (in this case, someone more powerful than you to an unknown degree and totally impossible to reason with). Paranoia is one of the things that can most intensely shape someone’s life if they have predisposition towards it or a reason to have it. These things are curses in the “Doom spell” sense- a foreboding of an impending fate that colors everything you do

    1. I like the idea of PCs beginning the campaign having been cursed and maybe trying to find a way to lift it. Bit too 'narrativist' perhaps.

  5. I think much more game-able curse framework is:
    1. Infraction. The victim has offended the curse-caster, by some demented logic or code.
    2. Penalty. The curse does something to the victim--coma, turn to stone, polymorph, cannot bear sunlight, lycanthropy, coughs up small songbirds constantly
    3. Breaking condition. In the casting of the curse, some ending condition is stated--true loves' kiss, until a unicorn farts in the victim's mouth, secure some rare component.
    The breaking condition is the reason a curse is more powerful than a spell--the escape valve means that the universe will allow more mana to be bound than in a fire-and-forget spell.
    And the increased mana is why the caster uses a curse instead of a spell.