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D&D 5E How cursed are cursed items?

Today, for no real reason, I was thinking about the girdle of masculinity/femininity and how it's often been said that transgendered characters would kill for this supposedly "cursed" item. What would happen if such a character actually put it on, though? Is the item's effect simply to change the wearer's biological sex, meaning this character has cleverly found a beneficial use for something most characters wouldn't want? Or is it a true curse, pernicious and cruel, with the purpose of causing suffering in the form of gender dysphoria for whoever puts it on -- meaning a trans character would find themselves unchanged or even masculinized/feminized in the wrong direction?

There are some cursed items for which this sort of question doesn't really make sense. I doubt there are many potentially beneficial uses for the -2 sword (other than the basic "get the enemy to use it" that's valid for all cursed items). But many others seem open to this double interpretation. Can the bag of devouring be used to dispose of inconvenient items and bodies, or does it perversely only devour that which you want to keep? If you put the headband of ogre intellect on something less intelligent than an ogre, like your animal companion, does its Int go up or does it get even dumber?

I'm of two minds here. On the one hand, it seems appropriate from a gameplay standpoint to reward players for thinking outside the box about how to use the magic they find. But on the other hand, it also seems appropriate from a narrative standpoint for it to be bad idea trying to get the better of a curse. You rarely hear stories about how the king is cursed with ass' ears, but figures out how they can be helpful to him and lives happily ever after. So what would you do?

(Side note: I wouldn't put the girdle of masculinity/femininity in a campaign with a trans player at all unless I knew them really well and were confident they'd be okay with it. In fact, I probably wouldn't put the thing in any campaign, period. There are plenty of other cursed items that aren't simultaneously so petty and so potentially explosive. I'm musing about the design philosophy behind these items here, not plotting a cruel trick.)
 
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flametitan

Explorer
Personally, I would allow players to use dirty tricks using cursed items-- One person's trash is another's treasure, after all. Besides, I like to encourage creative thinking. Having players take advantage of what's usually a bad item is perfectly fine. Besides, I know a number of paladins who would consider a shield of arrow attraction a boon over a curse, and it'd be rude to take away something they were stoked about.

(Good call with the girdle. It's one of those "cruel joke" items, but unlike most of them can probably lead to out of game friction.)

EDIT: From a versmilitude perspective, I consider magic to follow what could be considered a "UNIX philosophy of spells." A magic item/spell does exactly what it says it does; no more, no less. This is because spells are already highly versatile. So while you can use a spell/item in novel ways, it cannot be used in ways the spell doesn't support (No ice rafts from Ray of Frost, no setting fire to Grease, etc.) I assume most tables are like this for magic.
 
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Ed Laprade

First Post
For myself, if the players can find a beneficial way to use a cursed item, more power to them. This is part of the 'just say yes' mindset that I prefer.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
DM's call really. Unless the item actually ascribes a mechanical penalty, I wouldn't actually call it a "cursed" item. I think it's perfectly fine to portray a Girdle of Opposite Gender (as Pathfinder calls it) as simply a "magical item" and let players make some lore checks to determine if people have generally had a positive experience or a negative experience. Some more open-minded folks (like monks or druids or clerics of gods of change) may find the belt to provide nothing more than an interesting experience, those living in a more gender-defined society or occupying a gender-specific position in life may find the belt to be a cruel joke.

Perhaps adding an optional Wisdom check to the belt to help determine the inclination of the character towards its effect. Perhaps ascribe an alignment component to the belt, depending on your sense of humor, where the good become beautiful/ugly and the evil become ugly/beautiful. Things that transform the players I tend to take were designed by a tricksters mind, the end result is humor. It's really up to the DM to determine if that humor is malign or not. I would definately say that, if it is a possible item to appear thanks to random item charts or purposeful inclusion, the DM should immediately decide if the belt has any intentions at all (it may not) and if it does, what those intentions are. Maybe toss in a component that the unwitting wearer can get turned back within 24 hours if they play a trick on someone else and get that person to wear the belt. Victim must both be unwitting and unwilling (and of course, fail their save).

I think that, aside from "simple" cursed items which incur some sort of mechanical penalty, "thematic" cursed items are designed to be fun. So that's what I think a DM should do with any such item, have fun with it.
 

If an item is intelligent or an artifact, I might be more inclined to grant it an innate malevolence that causes it to be more perverse and to take the intent of the user into account. But for your "average" cursed item, I'd say it's purely a mechanical effect that does what it says on the tin, no more and no less.
 

Cursed items in my campaign are never useless items. But they may be magical items that have unintended side effects, that still make them valuable despite their negative effects. But more often, they have effects that are intentional, but nasty. For example, a rug that always trips people that walk on it may be cursed. But when used against intruders it is quite useful.

They can also be items where something went wrong during the crafting. The cursed item can be a failed crafting experiment, that has the opposite of its intended effect. For example, a ring of luck that actually draws bad luck to its wearer. Or a sword that cannot be disarmed, but it also refuses to leave its owner's hand, even if he wants to put it down.
 
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Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
I'm of the mindset that as a DM, I definitely want to reward creative thinking. However, if I put a cursed item in the game:

1) It's for a reason. I'm either trying to teach a lesson, move the story forward, or provide opportunities to make things interesting.

2) I'm unlikely to set out specific mechanical elements of the curse into stone. Just like how the Lady of Pain from Planescape never got stats specifically because once something gets stats, it can be killed, a cursed item with stats just becomes a magical item that you don't use as often (or only in specific situations).
 

MarkB

Legend
I'd tend to take design intent into account to some extent. Some 'cursed' items were indeed created with specific ill intent and may be designed to maximise the delivery of that ill intent. Others may have been designed to produce an effect that was beneficial or desirable to a specific intended user, but which would be considered detrimental to most others. And some are simply magical accidents, failed experiments which turned out to have different properties than intended.
 

Ath-kethin

Elder Thing
Unless the item actually ascribes a mechanical penalty, I wouldn't actually call it a "cursed" item.

Beat me to the punch. The term "cursed" I think comes from the fact that back in the day, the effects of these items were the reverse of what a character might believe, and additionally most of them were difficult to be rid of. Most were created by accidents while trying to fabricate the normal version of the item.

But even in those days, clever players could find uses for such items (the example the OP gave for bags of devouring being a common example). Calling a portable garbage disposal 'cursed' seems short-sighted at best. Though the guy who just tried to store a staff of the magi in one might disagree.

Some items, like the girdle of ha! ha! you're a girl now, you loser! had more of an impact in the days when 1) almost all players and therefore characters were male and 2) female characters actually had stat penalties just for being female. Nowadays such a gotcha! item seems rather out of place.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
Beat me to the punch. The term "cursed" I think comes from the fact that back in the day, the effects of these items were the reverse of what a character might believe, and additionally most of them were difficult to be rid of. Most were created by accidents while trying to fabricate the normal version of the item.

But even in those days, clever players could find uses for such items (the example the OP gave for bags of devouring being a common example). Calling a portable garbage disposal 'cursed' seems short-sighted at best. Though the guy who just tried to store a staff of the magi in one might disagree.

Some items, like the girdle of ha! ha! you're a girl now, you loser! had more of an impact in the days when 1) almost all players and therefore characters were male and 2) female characters actually had stat penalties just for being female. Nowadays such a gotcha! item seems rather out of place.

It would be a highly sought-after item in societies that were highly gender stratified, but I would imagine the use of one (if you were found out) would be very punishable. Take Drow society, women are almost always of higher caste by simple fact of them being women. A Drow male of low standing may seek out a belt of gender switch in order to "jump ranks" in Drow society. The item may likewise be used as a form of punishment by Drow females of high standing against women who have failed society in some way.
 

MonsterEnvy

Adventurer
Though there are still nasty little cursed items. Like the Spear of Backbiting for example. A +3 spear that when you attack with it suddenly flips around and stabs you in the back.
 

Saeviomagy

Adventurer
It all comes down to "why is this item cursed?" in the multiple meanings of that statement:
What quality does the item possess that make it 'cursed'?

What is the reason that the item was created with a curse?

For the belt, it could be argued that the creature intended a gender swap, and the fact that it takes the form of an irremovable belt is the curse. Or alternately the entire item is a curse intended for a specific recipient.

It seems to me that with the default rules for magic item creation, it's just as hard to make a cursed item as not. To me, that would suggest that any cursed item that has a negative effect that can never be useful is an accident or an unavoidable side effect.

While one might want a sword that you cannot be disarmed of, and that springs to your hand on entering battle, there's no reason ever to make one that is -2: the resources required to enchant such a thing out shadow the requirements for a casting of remove curse by an enormous margin.

So the -2 cursed sword is an accident or an unavoidable side effect. I can't imagine a situation where having a sword outweighs the penalties of the -2 sword, so I doubt anyone makes one deliberately. It's firmly in the side effect camp.

However something like the berserker axe is more likely to be an unavoidable side effect. The axe is, after all, quite good. You have to use it, and it gives you a couple of vulnerabilities, but overall it's something you might consider worth it.

Personally I think that is the only ways that cursed items make sense: they're intended for some use. Either they do exactly what they intend (but that use is undesirable to the players) or they have a perfectly legitimate use that is hindered by some flaw in the item.

Either way, I think that including cursed items that cannot ever be useful leads to less excitement than an item that may be used for an unintended purpose, or may be used despite a drawback. The former at best drives a quest to overcome the curse and dispose of the item. The latter leads to ongoing drama and flavour.

The berserker axe is something that's going to stay in the campaign for a while, and quite possibly see some use. The -2 sword will be dumped or destroyed as soon as the players can let it go.
 

S

Sunseeker

Guest
What is the reason that the item was created with a curse?

For the belt, it could be argued that the creature intended a gender swap, and the fact that it takes the form of an irremovable belt is the curse. Or alternately the entire item is a curse intended for a specific recipient.

This is a good point as more often then not historical "cursed" items were designed to have a specific effect for a specific person. It may have been a boon, it may have been a punishment. Then of course as mortals tend to do, that person died and the item moved to new hands. Those new hands then used the item, which affected them as it was designed to do, and then that person is usually the one that determined if the effect was a blessing or a curse, as they ran around like mad to all the houses of worship attempting to get the curse undone.

Perhaps the Belt of Gender Switch was designed for a daughter of a noble house, the family had only daughters and if they had no son, they would lose everything to whomever their eldest daughter married. So perhaps one of the daughters willingly became as man, in part to avoid the mandatory marrying-off of herself, in part to get all of her family's wealth, and in part to preserve the family name.

Then the belt was passed down in the family, and several generations later the family had only sons. All but the eldest would get nothing but they made the best of it and went off to war, in the meantime, the eldest son was tricked by a witch he had robbed into wearing the family heirloom belt, thus transforming him into a woman, a short while later, it was found that the remaining sons had all died, gone missing or become monks and forsworn the family fortune. The belt, once a blessing on the family, was now a curse. And THAT is the one that wrote the story of the belt that lives to this day, never mentioning the belt had once been secretly used to successfully secure the family name.

As you say, the DM should figure out what the "intended use" of the supposedly cursed item was before including it at the table. That's not to say there aren't some items that might only exist to be punishments and thus be universally seen as "curses" but those too can have their uses if the party is clever.
 

Unless the item actually ascribes a mechanical penalty, I wouldn't actually call it a "cursed" item.
There's a real consequence to the distinction: "cursed" items need remove curse or similar magic to get rid of. This has traditionally been the case with the girdle. You can't just take it off.

I think it's perfectly fine to portray a Girdle of Opposite Gender (as Pathfinder calls it) as simply a "magical item" and let players make some lore checks to determine if people have generally had a positive experience or a negative experience.
This is a good point. At the very least, for a character contemplating putting on a girdle intentionally, I'd say they're definitely entitled to an Arcana check to learn that either "people have been known to turn curses to their benefit" or "it's dangerous to mess with a curse: even if you think you'd like the results, you probably won't". It should never be a complete toss-up whether the item is going to screw them over or not.
 

If an item is intelligent or an artifact, I might be more inclined to grant it an innate malevolence that causes it to be more perverse and to take the intent of the user into account. But for your "average" cursed item, I'd say it's purely a mechanical effect that does what it says on the tin, no more and no less.
I don't think it's necessarily a matter of intelligence. You can write the more perverse version of the girdle as a purely mechanical effect: "This belt changes its wearer's biological sex to maximally mismatch their gender identity." Yeah, I'll admit a perverse bag of devouring probably requires intelligence and malice to determine what it's going to leave undevoured, but since the bag is, y'know, actually a creature, that's hardly out of the question.
 

MarkB

Legend
One other category of cursed item is also worthy of consideration - items that were originally created to be beneficial and good, but were later cursed or corrupted in some fashion. An item like that can be interesting to give out, because even if its effects are entirely negative, it might be kept around in hopes of finding some way to redeem or cleanse it.
 

jgsugden

Legend
This is a role playing game. A story game. Let a good story decide and don't feel bound to make it the same across the board. Who made the cursed item? Why? Would they have considered the potential positive use and worked a secondary curse? Or was the item an accident built with no evil intent that just happens to be mostly negative? There a Re few enough magic items in 5E for you to give each a one minute pondering for a quick back story. It is well worth the effort. Make those items unique and fun.
 

If the PCs can come up with a clever use for a cursed item, more power to them. Most of the time, when I use cursed items they have some advantages to them, so that the PCs have to weigh the good and bad to using them. Like a ring that can blast enemies with fire, but causes debilitating pain (disadvantage) to the wielder when used. Or the aforementioned Backbiter Spear, with a curse that only manifests sometimes.
 

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