Friday, July 21, 2017

"Drawbacks" on Magic Items Can Force Players To Make Tough Decisions in Pathfinder

Magic items are part and parcel of Pathfinder games. Everything, from the types of adventures parties go on, to the CR rating of monsters, is made with the assumption that characters are going to have access to magic weapons, armor, and wondrous items at certain points in the game. If the party has the time and resources, it's even possible for spellcasters with the right feats to make practically any item in the various equipment sections.

However, the problem with magic items being so commonly found is that they can get boring after a while. I talked about this a while back in How To Keep Your Magic Items From Getting Mundane, but that post was all about using description, lore, and unique sets of circumstances to try making "normal" magic items feel more special. This week, though, we're talking about adding some cursed items to your game... but not the normal kind of cursed items. The kind that, while they have a drawback, are hard to pass up since their maker got them almost right.

It is, indeed, +5 full plate with heavy fortification. But it plays Nickelback while you wear it.

Curses and Drawbacks

Cursed items are, by and large, seen as one of those DM dick moves that's meant to screw over players. It's a bait-and-switch, where they pick up the loot, only to find that now it's a sword that makes them clumsy, or armor that deals them damage, or a cloak that's made of poison, etc.

They're like the worst possible practical jokes. The kind where only the guy who thought it would be funny to throw a venomous snake at his friend while he was walking up the stairs can see why it's amusing.

Uh-huh. Explain to me again why it was funny to hide this thing in my bed when you know I carry a gun, Steve.
However, there are varying degrees of cursed items. While some of the more extreme ones can act as a trap for adventurers who are unwary enough to pick up whatever shiny sword or weird wand they find in a necromancer's trophy cabinet, there are less-awful cursed items you might want to consider dotting your game's landscape with.

Especially if you want your players to face some difficult choices when it comes to the gear they buy.

That's where we get to Drawbacks, listed on page 538 of the Core Rulebook. This chart lists a slew of effects a cursed item might have that make it disturbing, problematic, or even silly. Drawbacks like an item that's garishly colored (like a dancing tower shield that's bright pink, with a lavender unicorn on it) are possible, or items that emit a disturbing sound when in use (like a bastard sword that screams for blood, or a keen dagger that emits a low, wicked laugh). There are items that make the wielder's hair grow, that change their hair color, or that make the temperature colder or warmer near them. Characters might change race, gender, or skin color when first picking up an item. It might mark them with some strange brand, or tattoo. And some items will change your alignment, force a Fortitude save once per day to avoid stat damage, or knock you out for 1d4 rounds once they've been put away.

These drawbacks mean that players have to make hard choices when it comes to some of their treasure. For example, a +3 heavy steel shield would be a boon to the fighter, but the disturbing, vampiric crest means he has to make a save every morning or suffer 1 point of Strength damage. A breastplate that prevents the wearer from casting spells would be ideal for a barbarian, though the item's original purpose may have been to imprison wizards. While the holy glaive that burns with pure light might seem an ideal weapon for a holy warrior, it never stops whispering prayers to its god. That can try the patience of saints, after a while.

What's The Cost?

People don't usually set out to make cursed items, or so the Core Rulebook says, since they're created as a result of a spellcaster failing their check to make a magic item. However, does that mean it's possible to get more powerful items earlier on in the campaign, if the PC is willing to put up with the cost of the curse? Especially since, in addition to Drawbacks, page 536 has a list of situations for Dependent cursed items (meaning they will only function when the conditions for the curse are met, such as being within 10 feet of a certain race, at night, during the day, in the hands of a spellcaster, a non-spellcaster, etc.).

Whether you're trying to get items on the cheap from a wizard's college, and you're buying student work instead of craft by the masters, or you're dealing with traveling merchants who have a narrow, but unusual, selection, these items can be tailored to present your players with some tough choices.

And if the ranger gets too handsy with that scimitar, it might just turn him purple.

That's all for this week's Crunch topic. Hopefully it gets the wheels turning for any DMs out there. If you'd like to help support Improved Initiative, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. All it takes is $1 a month, and that gets you both my eternal gratitude, and a sweet stack of gaming swag. Lastly, if you want to keep up on all my latest work, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. These are my favorite types of cursed items, because while they don't make the item what is effectively a gold sink (forcing someone to pay gp for a remove curse spell) and rendering them severely hampered unto they cough up the dough, these types make it feel more like power at a price, which is a theme I very much like, and I wish PF supported it more for good aligned characters. I find balancing high level powers is a lot easier if they come at great personal, and possibly even moral cost.

    The paladin being forced to use the soul stealing blade, Fiendcarver, to kill the lich once and for all can lead to some really cool character development. Is the paladin willing to risk using an evil weapon to protect the innocent from harm, or will he recoil from the blade and try to find some other way to seal the lich away? Will using the evil blade to perform, say 10 truly good acts redeem it's curse, perhaps even rewarding the risk of using it. Any route can lead to creative role playing. Certainly more interesting than "lol, that was a helm of opposite alignment, now you're a CE murderhobo with no powers until you repent"