All magic is cursed…what types of mechanics make sense at the table?

dm_fromscratch

Explorer
In my home game, just like the post title says, all magic is cursed. I’ve homebrewed a few options for representing this setting-wide curse on magic, with varying successes and lessons learned (some of which I include below and detail further in the spoiler text), but I want to hear from the community on what would make sense at your table.

The biggest wins and challenges I’ve run into so far:

Win: Players enjoy the idea of the setting.
It’s not a unique concept (see ABC’s Once Upon a Time tv series for just one of many takes on the “all magic comes with a price” theme), but it is a powerful force in helping players consider their choices for character creation, roleplay and actions, and generally how they approach and interact with the game world.

Challenge: Maintaining a balance between how the curse impacts casters vs non-casters is tricky.
Introducing a curse that affects all magic might easily make playing a caster less fun if every cool thing you can do automatically comes with a downside. At lower levels, this is skewed harder against casters since martials don’t typically have easy access to magic items at lower levels. IMO this helps reinforce the theme, but at the same time, the negative consequences are also quite harmless at lower levels. However, the greater the magic, the greater the curse’s effects. In this way, by the time casters are really taking big risks, so are martials at higher risk with greater access to (and perhaps even a perceived reliance on) magic weapons, ammunition, armor, and other enchanted items etc. Not sure if this offsets the negatives of casting cursed magic, so this balance is something I am often revisiting to see if players are all still having a good time regardless of whether they’ve chosen a magic or martial class.

Challenge: How often does the curse immediately impact a specific instance of magic use?
This is probably the biggest one in my opinion. How to keep the curse a constant threat and reminder without it becoming a burdensome task either for the players to track or the GM to implement. Combat in turn -based TTRPG can already be quite time-consuming without adding extra elements to remember or introduce on the fly.

Lessons: I started with a simple meta-mechanic called the cursed numbers of the day.
Each session, up to 3 randomly chosen numbers are cursed. Whenever dice are rolled in conjunction with the use of magic, and a die lands on a cursed number, then the intended magical effect is accompanied by another, unintended negative magical effect, typically one that harms the magic user.

A few design intentions here.
  1. Its occurrence is randomized. A party might have several encounters or interactions where no negative effects occur at all, possibly an entire session. Or the party might experience several cursed effects in a row. It ostensibly creates tension with every use of magic since you never know when the curse might hit next.
  2. It’s an extra step at the beginning of a session, but in theory doesn’t bog down active play since there aren’t extra dice to roll. It’s just a response to dice that would have been rolled anyway.
Playtest feedback
  • Cursed numbers of the day are a fun novelty to introduce and include, and the randomness can indeed create tension and complications for both ally and enemy alike. However, in practice, it can be tough to maintain that sense of novelty over time, and even if play isn’t bogged down by extra rolls, random negative effects every session can become tiresome for players to constantly have to deal with and/or for GM’s to constantly invent and manage on the fly.
I’ve tweaked this mechanic here and there and I feel it works best if
  1. there’s at least some dialogue between player and GM as to what the cursed effect is, with the understanding that the GM has the final adjudication
  2. it’s not the only manifestation of the curse, i.e. there are other cursed magic things at work in the world, some much larger and potentially more dangerous in scope (a broken portal that only transports in one direction), others more mundane (magical storms that defy the natural seasons, but only for a few minutes or hours)
(TL;DR It works best when paired with good player-GM communication and alongside a variety of other manifestations of the curse at work in the world.)

Thoughts? Or examples of curses you’ve used or seen before?
 

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Dannyalcatraz

Schmoderator
Staff member
Supporter
I haven’t really used the idea in a FRPG (but have for some supers characters). I’ve seen it innumerable times in fiction. It’s foundational to a lot of the magic in Shanarra, the Cthulhu Mythos, LotR, and others.

Arguably, Defiler Magic from DarkSun would be considered a form of curse. Ditto certain “wild magic” side effects.

One of the typical forms of magic curses is physical transformation. It can be abrupt (“She changed me into a newt!) or gradual (Gollum). It can be temporary or permanent. It can be reversible or irreversible.

In a game, the curse of magic could be an occasional side effect, a cumulative effect, or both depending on frequency or difficulty.

And the more severe the effect, the rarer it should be.
 


MNblockhead

A Title Much Cooler Than Anything on the Old Site
Check out Dungeon Crawl Classics. The magic system there should give you a lot more of what you want.
This. I would also look at Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 4e. Magic in WFRP is tied to chaos and casting is risky with potential for minor and major miscasts that can lead to bad things happening. But there are also ways for casters to mitigate this and making casting safer. The more powerful you are as a caster the more difficult and risky spells you have but this is also mitigated by higher attributes, skills, and talents. The one downside is that a new player who doesn't fully understand the rules for casting can easily make poor character build choices that keep magic really risky. Now, some players really lean into this, but for those who get frustrated with how unreliable and risky casting is, it is important that they know how they can mitigate this so they can make the trade-offs and expend their XP accordingly.

I also like the dark deals mechanic in WFRP. Basically you can get some mechanical benefit, such as a reroll, but taking a deal with the dark powers, but you earn corruption as a result. You need to find ways to move corruption or it get to high you start getting mutations.
 

overgeeked

B/X Known World
This. I would also look at Warhammer Fantasy Role Play 4e. Magic in WFRP is tied to chaos and casting is risky with potential for minor and major miscasts that can lead to bad things happening. But there are also ways for casters to mitigate this and making casting safer. The more powerful you are as a caster the more difficult and risky spells you have but this is also mitigated by higher attributes, skills, and talents. The one downside is that a new player who doesn't fully understand the rules for casting can easily make poor character build choices that keep magic really risky. Now, some players really lean into this, but for those who get frustrated with how unreliable and risky casting is, it is important that they know how they can mitigate this so they can make the trade-offs and expend their XP accordingly.

I also like the dark deals mechanic in WFRP. Basically you can get some mechanical benefit, such as a reroll, but taking a deal with the dark powers, but you earn corruption as a result. You need to find ways to move corruption or it get to high you start getting mutations.
There’s also WFRP 2E and the Tome of Corruption. Wonderful resource for mutations and afflictions. There’s also the Net Libram of Random Magical Effects.

 

Theory of Games

Disaffected Game Warrior
power-gamer enters the chat

Why would you nerf the party nerd? Traditionally casters can't go ham in combat and tend to be glass cannons. Now the cannon explodes when it fires? Seems to slap "fun" in the face, right?
 

dm_fromscratch

Explorer
I haven’t really used the idea in a FRPG (but have for some supers characters). I’ve seen it innumerable times in fiction. It’s foundational to a lot of the magic in Shanarra, the Cthulhu Mythos, LotR, and others.

Arguably, Defiler Magic from DarkSun would be considered a form of curse. Ditto certain “wild magic” side effects.

One of the typical forms of magic curses is physical transformation. It can be abrupt (“She changed me into a newt!) or gradual (Gollum). It can be temporary or permanent. It can be reversible or irreversible.

In a game, the curse of magic could be an occasional side effect, a cumulative effect, or both depending on frequency or difficulty.

And the more severe the effect, the rarer it should be.
Thx, I definitely do want to experiment with cumulative effects and explore permanent vs temporary. Agree on the severity/rarity correlation as well.
 


dm_fromscratch

Explorer
But there are also ways for casters to mitigate this and making casting safer.
The WFRP take sounds neat and like something I'd want to take inspiration from. I am wary of making things too complicated, but conceptually this sounds very close to the curse in my setting.

power-gamer enters the chat

Why would you nerf the party nerd? Traditionally casters can't go ham in combat and tend to be glass cannons. Now the cannon explodes when it fires? Seems to slap "fun" in the face, right?
Though power-gaming isn't my go-to style as a player, I don't discourage it at my table, and slapping fun in the face is a feeling I definitely want to avoid. Mitigation strategies as mentioned above or tradeoffs (like WFRP dark deals or Devil's Bargains in BitD) could go a long way towards increasing the firepower "fun" of glass cannon casting, even if there's a price to pay.

The players know upfront that magic is cursed, so if they choose a caster class or use any magic items they knowingly accept the risk. But also beyond that, there is an unspoken challenge: to beat the curse, overcome its effects and succeed against all odds, perhaps even find a way to undo or lift the curse altogether. There is of course another unspoken route to take, to avoid the use of magic altogether, and that's it's own challenge in a magic filled world, but not really the topic of this thread.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
In a lot of ways, you could consider the downsides of the caster classes they already have as curses. Wizards and Sorcerers only get d6s for hit dice-- is that due to them not getting enough time in the gym to get healthier, or is that perhaps because they've been "cursed" to be weaker than most other normal people? It depends on how you frame the narrative to the players. Why can't they wear armor when casting spells? Is that because they just were never taught how to put armor on and wear it successfully while casting, or is it they've been "cursed" to not be able to wear any sort of protection on the battlefield? Again, it's all in how you frame the class's mechanics as part of the narrative of the world.

And then if you find the natural low-points of the caster classes are not enough for you in terms of "curses"... you could choose to go further by making some additional changes / amendments to the wizards and sorcerers so that they are unable to compensate for these hinderances that the class mechanics give them. For instance, you could say that wizards and sorcerers cannot raise their CON score above 10 so they will always be cursed to be low on hit points and perhaps you remove Mage Armor and Shield from their spell lists so that they are always cursed to be easier to hit?

In terms of balance, the game takes these possibilities of low HP and no protection spells into account-- they don't force wizards and sorcerers to raise their CON to make up for their d6 hit dice and they don't give Mage Armor and Shield to these classes for free as a repayment for not giving them any armor proficiencies. They allow for these possibilities to occur and the game is set up such that it still works for them if it does. Now granted, most players DO choose take these things on their own in order to compensate for their class shortcomings because the game lets them... but the game will still work even if you don't.
 

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