Rewind - Cursed Magic Items
Welcome to our newest series of articles on the No INT Here blog! We are going to be changing pace just a bit and start looking back at the past editions with our rose-colored glasses, daydreaming about everything that once was in DnD and how we might be able to update those elements for 5e.
Up until 4e, cursed magic items could be found quite prevalently in the DMG. Starting with 4e, few to none were listed, instead a chart of curses was made available to the DM to use when they choose to be a right, proper bastard. Some may think the correlation is that Gygax liked being a dick to his players and led the charge on this, but that only explains 1e, not 2e or 3e as he was no longer with TSR/WotC during those years. While we aren’t sure why there was such a proliferation of cursed items, we have to admit it… we kind of like them. Some of them are pretty funny, others are odd, and some are just plain mean. At the end of this post, you can check out our updated versions of these cursed magic items for 5e.
Girdle of Femininity/Masculinity
AD&D, Dungeon Master’s Guide - 1979
This broad leather band appears to be a normal belt used commonly by all sorts of adventurers, but of course it is magical. If buckled on, it will immediately change the sex of its wearer to the opposite gender. Its magical curse fulfilled, the belt then loses all power. The original sex of the character cannot be restored by any normal means, although a wish might do so (50% chance), and a powerful being can alter the situation, i.e., it takes a god-like creature to set matters aright with certainty. 10% of these girdles actually remove all sex from the wearer.
What a great cursed item. For a little context, we need to go back to the time of AD&D. The game was almost completely dominated by teenage boys and men in the 70’s and 80’s, so almost every character played was a male. For a 14 year old boy, the thought of playing a female character was a totally foreign idea. So, when you put on this belt, hoping you get a +1 to your AC only to be turned into a female was mortifying. Seriously, I can’t think of anything worst for a 14 year old boy playing in the 80’s having to play a female. Considering the average female character in AD&D is portrayed as wearing bikini chainmail, I think most characters would get killed in the first fight because they’d be too busy playing with their own breasts.
Thank god times have changed. Or at least I think and hope they have. It’s a little easier to think of someone playing a different sex than the one they started with. While there are many factors to take into account when this item is activated, I would say your armor would be the biggest issue. As we all know, men and women come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few fundamental differences between the two. I would argue that no armor the person is wearing would fit upon buckling on the girdle. Players would have to take off their armor or suffer some sort of disadvantage to their attack due to the ill fitting armor. Abilities would stay the same, since the item says nothing about stat changes. At least they weren’t being totally sexist when they wrote this.
The final interesting part of this item is the fact that there is a 10% chance that ALL sex is removed from the weaver. I suppose this means they become non-binary, though I’m not 100% on that though. Sex changes can be a very sensitive subject, and the DM should probably check with the player and even the table as a whole, before moving forward with these types of items.
Ring of Delusions
AD&D, Dungeon Master’s Guide 1979
A delusion ring convinces the wearer that it is some other sort of ring—whatever sort the wearer really desires. The wearer will be completely convinced that the ring is actually one with other magical properties, and he will unconsciously use his abilities of any sort (including those of other magical items available) to produce a result commensurate with the supposed properties of the delusion ring. The DM determines how successful the self-delusion is, as well as how observers are affected and what they will observe. The ring can be removed at any time.
Another great cursed item, especially nowadays when roleplaying your character is now just as, if not more, important than combat. There are a couple ways to handle this item, depending on what the DM wants to do. First, the DM could talk to the player and ask them what ring they want it to be, obviously not telling them it’s a ring of delusions. Maybe they tell the player it is a “special” ring that will become whatever type that the player most desires. This is where it can get fun. The DM can ask the player to give a few small examples of what they are doing when they “activate” the ring. The player will hopefully act out some of the smaller details of what he is doing and the players around him can act accordingly. Now it’s up to the table to say something to the player or else the character will think everything is going as planned.
But what does act accordingly mean? Does the wearer think they have gone invisible and start strolling up to the monster thinking they can’t be seen? The party members who can see this given their vantage point may wonder what the hell the character is doing, but once again, do they say anything to the player? The user may say that he/she used their invisibility ring and is going up to flank the monster. Now the DM can get involved depending on what the rest of the party decides to do. Does the DM have him roll a stealth check? If they truly think they are invisible, could the DM interpret that as a form of stealth? Maybe. Now the party will wonder why the player is trying to be sneaky. The possibilities are endless and can lead to some pretty funny, and deadly, scenarios.
Finally, the player’s belief that they are using the ring as it was meant leads to some unintended consequences. Let’s say the player wants a ring of fireballs and the DM decides to allow it (as a homebrew item of course). The player recently became a 5th level wizard and really loves the fireball. (As we all do!) He wants to have the ability to cast it more than once and that’s why he is dying to have the ring of fireballs. So the party goes into battle and the first thing the wizard does is cast fireball… From his new ring. A bright flash of light shoots out from the wizard’s outstretched arm and slams into the horde of kobolds. The player is ecstatic that it worked and saved the spell slot.
But based on the items description the player actually used his spell since he will unconsciously use his abilities of any sort to produce a result commensurate with the supposed properties of the delusion ring. So most likely, both the player and the party will think the ring worked. So as the battle rages on and the party needs something to turn the tide, the wizard decides it’s time to use that spell slot and crush the remaining kobolds. He tells the party members to disengage and run back to him, which they all do. The player then tries to cast the fireball on the rest of the kobolds and… nothing happens. And now, the kobolds take their chance and rain death all around the retreating heroes. Hilarity and the end of a campaign all wrapped up in one little ring!
Phylactery of Monstrous Attention
AD&D, Dungeon Master’s Guide - 1979
While this arm wrapping appears to be some sort of beneficial device, it actually draws the attention of supernatural creatures of exactly the opposite alignment of the cleric wearing it. This results in the cleric being plagued by powerful and hostile creatures whenever he or she is in an area where such creatures are or can appear. If the cleric is of 10th or higher level, the attention of his or her deity's most powerful enemy will be drawn, so as to cause this being to interfere directly. For example, a lawful good cleric attracts various demons and eventually the notice of Orcus or Demogorgon. Once donned, a phylactery of monstrous attention cannot be removed without an exorcism spell and then a quest must be performed to re-establish the cleric in his or her alignment.
This item only targets the Cleric, and is just plain mean. While it says nothing about it in the DMG, I assume this item would only be found by a higher level cleric to add some serious flavor to the game. The simple mention of Orcus and Demogorgon should lead the DM to realize how strong of a cursed item this is. Because, just as it adds the potential for a huge battle between the Prince of the Demons and his Minions against an 11th Level Cleric in his own Temple and his followers, it can be just as destructive for a lower level cleric, and probably even more so. The creatures the cleric would have to face will continue to get stronger and stronger as the cleric continues to gain levels. This can get deadly fast. Especially if the cleric doesn’t realize his new fashion statement is trying to kill him.
The term “supernatural creatures” gives a great deal of creatures for the DM to choose from. Obviously all undead fall into this category, but looking at 5e, this could end up being all sorts of creatures, including angels (for those playing Evil characters), Mephits, Aberrations of all shape and size, etc. Supernatural creatures aren’t defined as a specific type of creature in 5e, so I think the DM has a decent amount of wiggle room. Obviously things like humanoids wouldn’t fall under this term, but many others would.
In early editions, alignment was determined very strictly. So the opposite of a lawful good creatures was only at chaotic evil creature, so on and so forth. Neutral was an exception, where it was only determined by the good and evil portion of alignment. Since alignment was been watered down over the editions (wrongfully so), I would say that opposite alignment should be determined only by good or evil. Once again, this would open up a whole slew of creatures for the player to have to deal with.
Finally, we aren’t sure why the cleric needs to go on a quest to '‘re-establish the cleric in his or her alignment.” The item says nothing about the the cleric’s alignment being effected in such a way that the cleric needs to prove his worthiness to his deity. Sure, it can be a fun continuation of the campaign if the cleric ever gets the damn thing off, but the reason why such a quest needs to be missing from the description. Though, if the party wants free experience… they may force the cleric to keep on wearing his armwraps.
Bowl of Watery Death
AD&D, Dungeon Masters Guide, 1979
This device looks exactly like a bowl of commanding water elementals, right down to the color, design, magical radiation, etc. However, when it is filled with water, the wizard must successfully save vs. spell or be shrunk to the size of a small ant and plunged into the center of the bowl. If salt water is poured into the bowl, the saving throw suffers a -2 penalty.
The victim will drown in 1d6 + 2 rounds, unless magic is used to save him, for he cannot be physically removed from the bowl of watery death except by magical means: animal growth, enlarge, or wish are the only spells that will free the victim and restore normal size; a potion of growth poured into the water will have the same effect; a sweet water potion will grant the victim another saving throw (i.e., a chance that the curse magic of the bowl works only briefly). If the victim drowns, death is permanent, no resurrection is possible, and even a wish will not work.
This item is funny as it is deadly. Since the bowl will be identified as a Bowl of Water Elementals, the player would be completely unaware of its true nature. If they fill it up immediately upon finding it in a hoard they are pretty screwed, but at least the other party members have a chance to save them. If used for the first time in the heat of battle, they are really fucked. A water elemental is a pretty cool creature to summon and can be very helpful in any battle. Being shrunk to the size of an ant and drowning is not as helpful in a battle.
Based on the description, if using in 5e, we would translate that only magic users (wizard, sorcerer and warlock) would be able to use the bowl. Upon filling the bowl and failing their save (probably an Intelligence save, which at least would give most spell casters a slight advantage) they shrink to the size of an ant and are dropped immediately into the bowl. For context, let’s use the carpenter ant. The carpenter ant is one of the largest ants for their species. They are usually around 11-15 mm in size, and are a maximum of 20mm in length. That’s really small.
Now even if you could pluck something that small out of a bowl of water (which would be quite the sight in the middle of a battle), you can’t because the bowl specifically states that you can only be removed by magical means. Considering that your primary magic user is most likely the one that will be using the bowl, you better hope there is another wizard or sorcerer in the party, since they are the only ones with the Enlarge spell in 5e. I’m not sure how many people have that spell ready/memorized, but I’d argue that it’s not that many. Death being permanent with literally no option to bring you back is proof that cursed magic items are the best passive aggressive way a DM can get rid of that annoying wizard in the party.
A couple questions that I have regarding this item that would need to be clarified when translated into 5e. First, since the player is most likely the one holding the bowl when they pour water into it, I would think they bowl would fall to the ground with the player, now the size of an ant, inside it. I would assume the magical properties of the bowl would keep the water from spilling out, but let’s state that in the description. (It’s assumed you can’t just pour the water out, but let’s make sure that is stated for all those RAW people out there) Would a potion of water breathing poured into bowl prevent the player from drowning while the party tries to figure out how to remove the player from the bowl? How about a potion of swimming. Would that prevent you from drowning? The original item is very specific in its description of what will and will not work, so you’d need to have the same detail in the new description, with maybe a few tweaks.
Broom of Animated Attack
3.5e, Dungeon Masters Guide - 2003
This item is indistinguishable in appearance from a normal broom. It is identical to a broom of flying by all tests short of attempted use. Using it reveals that a broom of animated attack is a very nasty item.
If a command (“Fly,” “Go,” “Giddy-up,” or some similar word) is spoken, the broom does a loop-the-loop with its hopeful rider, dumping him on his head from 1d4+5 feet off the ground (no falling damage, since the fall is less than 10 feet). The broom then attacks the victim, swatting the face with the straw or twig end and beating him with the handle end.
The broom gets two attacks per round with each end (two swats with the straw and two with the handle, for a total of four attacks per round). It attacks with a +5 bonus on each attack roll. The straw end causes a victim to be blinded for 1 round when it hits. The handle deals 1d6 points of damage when it hits. The broom has AC 13, 18 hit points, and hardness 4.
This item is comical, but can cause some serious damage to lower level characters that think they’ve scored a broom of flying. It’s a pretty straightforward cursed item. Identified as a broom of flying, the hopeful player will most likely jump on the broom and attempt to take off for the clear blue skies. Of course, the second they do this, they probably figure out this isn’t any ordinary broom of flying. Instead of taking off like a scene from Harry Potter, the broom will dump them, head first onto the ground while doing a loop. We can see by the fact that there will be no fall damage to the player that the writers were having a good day when they wrote this and had their morning coffee.
Now that you’ve landed on your head, the real fun begins. The broom then will start to beat the shit out of you. If the broom has the high initiative, you’re in trouble on its first attack. Not only does it get four attacks, but it has a bonus because you are prone AND it gets +5 to all those attacks. To make matter worse, if you get hit with the straw side of the broom, you are blinded for a round. So now you’re prone, blinded and getting hit with the equivalent of a quarterstaff twice per round. Granted, a normal size party can destroy the broom pretty easily in one round since it’s basically a CR 1/2 creature, but for the player on the ground, it really sucks.
Robe of Vermin
3.5e, Dungeon Masters Guide - 2003
The wearer notices nothing unusual when the robe is donned, other than that it offers great magical defense (as a cloak of resistance +4). However, as soon as he is in a situation requiring concentration and action against hostile opponents, the true nature of the garment is revealed: The wearer immediately suffers a multitude of bites from the insects that magically infest the garment. He must cease all other activities in order to scratch, shift the robe, and generally show signs of the extreme discomfort caused by the bites and movement of these pests.
The wearer takes a –5 penalty on initiative checks and a –2 penalty on all attack rolls, saves, and skill checks. If he tries to cast a spell, he must make a Concentration check (DC 20 + spell level) or lose the spell.
This cursed item is pretty gross, upon first putting on the robe, the player will be very excited for their robe of +4 resistance. If the DM wants to make it even more tempting to keep from removing it, then they could make it resistant to multiple things. That said, it would also make sense for the robe to only be able to be worn by primary spell casters (Wizard, Sorcerer and Warlock). It wouldn’t make any sense for a fighter to be able to wear the cloak and only get its benefits.
When the spellcaster decides to use an action, things get ugly. Apparently insects start crawling all over the robe, and start biting the user. The image in my mind is quite a horrifying one. Since I have started writing this, I have been scratching at phantom bites all over my arms and neck. If it’s this bad for me, and I’m just thinking about it, imagine how bad it would be for the person wearing the robe.
Something missing from the items description is how the player stops the insects from biting him. There seems to be nothing that prevents the wearer from just taking the robe off. That seems way too easy for any cursed item. Where in previous editions it was damn near impossible to get rid of cursed items, things seemingly are left open to interpretation by the DM. There should be some sort of requirement or penalty to remove the robe, but I guess that is left up to the DM to decide.
The later editions (4e and 5e) take away the fun of actual cursed items. There are no official cursed magic items in the DMG, but the DM has the option to place a curse, or a detriment if it is an artifact, for an item. How boring. We say bring back the cursed magic items. Yes, you can find a million homebrew magic items throughout the internet. We say bring back some of these and other infamous cursed items.
Art Credit: TSR - Unearthed Arcana, 1985