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Rules FAQ How Do Curses Work In D&D 5E?

Curses are a staple of the fantasy genre, and in D&D 5E they are usually encountered in one of three ways:
  • Bestow curse (a spell)
  • Cursed magic items
  • Monsters!

This is the part of a weekly series of articles by a team of designers answering D&D questions for beginners. Feel free to discuss the article and add your insights or comments!

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Bestow curse
This spell is how player characters are most likely to access the power of curses for their own use.

Bestow curse is a 3rd-level spell found in the Player’s Handbook (page 218) appearing on the bard, cleric and wizard spell lists. Bestow curse suggests four effects to choose from, as well as saying “at the DM’s option, you may choose an alternative curse effect, but it should be no more powerful than those described.”

The suggested curses are designed in the context of combat, and its duration is determined by the spell slot level, from 1 minute at 3rd-level, up to 24 hours as a 7th-level spell. Cast at 3rd or 4th-level requires concentration to maintain the curse, while using a spell slot of 5th-level or higher removes the need for concentration. Using a 9th-level spell slot, you bestow a curse which persists until dispelled.

The options offered by this spell depends a great deal on your DM, but it can reasonably be used for temporary, superficial and narrative-motivated curses with minor mechanical consequences - making a creature’s hair fall out, removing their shadow or reflection, or causing a creature to bark rather than speaking a specific secret.

Cursed magic items
Cursed magic items are outlined in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (page 138). Most methods of identifying magic items fail to reveal their curse, including the spell identify. These curses are intended to be a surprise when they are revealed.

There are 5 cursed items listed in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (excluding artifacts) and they all require attunement. The curse extends to the user when they attune to the item, and this attunement can’t be ended voluntarily. The items specify “as long as you remain cursed, you are unwilling to part with the [item]” or if the item worn, such as armor, it simply can’t be removed.

As written, cursed items require a degree of meta-gaming to play. A player knows their character is cursed, but the character is meant to be unaware of the curse affecting their behaviour, or magically unwilling to have the curse removed.

That said, there is plenty of narrative potential in cursed items, especially cursed items which are objectively useful, or prompt interesting character development. It is a classic adventure hook to seek to destroy a cursed item, and to redeem a character afflicted by a curse.

As a final note on cursed magic items, there is one card from the infamous Deck of Many Things which curses the character drawing the card, and its curse can only be removed by a god, or another specific card from the deck. (I've included a spoiler at the end if you want to know which cards).

Monstrous curses
D&D monsters use a more narrative focused approach to curses, at least as origin stories. 5e monster lore frequently cites curses as the source of monsters. Some monstrosities “are the product of terrible curses,” and some undead are also the result of an “unholy curse” (Monster Manual page 7).

A (sadly) common theme involves beautiful women being cursed by gods for their vanity (the banshee, harpy, and medusa). Ugliness and deformity as curses reflecting inner evil appear in the description of fomorians, cursed so that their “bodies were warped to reflect the evil in their hearts,” and hags, specifically the sea hag, cursed with such extreme ugliness that it can’t be hidden, even with magic.

Other curses-as-origins references appear in descriptions of demons, driders, empyreans (evil only), lycanthropes, mummies, nothics, and perytons, as well as implied for gnolls, minotaurs and yuan-ti (as "blessings" from evil gods or archdemons).

Some monsters can inflict curses, as spellcasters or with specific abilities. The monsters listed below are those found in the Monster Manual:

Spellcasting monsters with bestow curse:
  • Hags - their description says all hags can curse their foes but only hag covens have access to the spell.
  • Naga - bone naga and guardian naga.
  • Vampire - on the vampire spellcaster variant’s spell list.
Monster abilities:
Curses can be avoided with a saving throw as defined by the ability. Some have a set duration, others allow additional saves to end the effect, and some can only be removed with magic.
  • Demilich - Vile Curse (a legendary action).
  • Fomorian - Curse of the Evil Eye.
  • Lamia - Intoxicating Touch.
  • Lycanthropes (werewolves, etc.) - Bite inflicts the lycanthropy curse. Distinct from ‘natural born lycanthropes.’
  • Mummies - Rotting Fist inflicts mummy rot. Additionally, taking a mummy lord’s treasure curses the thief.
  • Rakshasa - Claw.
Removing a curse from a player character
Remove curse, a 3rd-level spell on the cleric, paladin, warlock and wizard spell list can end the effects of bestow curse, end attunement to a cursed item, and remove curses from monster abilities that appear in the Monster Manual. As such, a level 5 party with a cleric or wizard can easily remove a curse. Effects from bestow curse can also be ended with dispel magic, potentially requiring an ability check depending on the spell slot levels used for the curse and the dispel.

Greater restoration, a 5th-level spell on the bard, cleric and druid spell lists can also end curses, end attunement to cursed items, and several other negative conditions.

For parties lower than level 5, or those without a cleric or wizard, finding a way to break a curse is often a quest. The following magical creatures can help:
  • Angels - devas, planetars and solars have Healing Touch to remove a curse.
  • Couatl - greater restoration once a day.
  • Empyrean - greater restoration at will.
  • Sphinxes - androsphinx knows greater restoration; gynosphinx knows remove curse.
  • Unicorn - their lair’s regional effect suppresses curses affecting good-aligned creatures.
Removing a curse from a monster
While removing curses from other player characters is often trivial, in contrast, removing curses from monsters (without simply killing them) is rarely possible for player characters. There are some scattered mentions such as “a natural born lycanthrope can be freed of the curse only with a wish” (Monster Manual page 207), and the curse from the Deck of Many Things (Dungeon Master's Guide page 164) which suggests powerful curses can be removed by a god, but these are rare opportunities and generally out of reach in most 5e campaigns.

*Deck of Many Things spoiler:
Euryale curses, and The Fates can remove this curse.
 
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Will Gawned

Will Gawned

MarkB

Legend
One thing I'm not sure about is whether dying and being resurrected can remove a curse. This came up for our group recently, when a character who was a werebear was killed, and then reincarnated.

In that instance I ruled that death broke the curse, partially because it's thematic (often in werewolf movies and the like, the defeated beast reverts to human form upon death) and partly because it left the choice up to the player (two other party members are werebears, so he could always ask for another nibble).

I don't know if there's a definitive answer, though.
 

Lyxen

Great Old One
This is a great summary, thanks, just mentioning that you might want to add Hex to your list of common curses, because it is one: "You place a curse on a creature that you can see within range..."
 

AtomicPope

Adventurer
I ran a Book of Vile Darkness game ages ago for 3e (not for every group and lost a good player right away), and this brings back memories, and House Rules. Curses are a prominent feature among evil beings. Undeath was a common curse, lingering in a state of unlife, empty and hollow, feasting on flesh of your own people. Running a Greyhawk campaign it was set in the Great Kingdom of Ivid the Undying. The evil PCs were seeking an alternate means to power, usurping those around them with a helping six fingered hand. Right away it was clear I had to give curses a boost:

  • Can't be removed with Dispel Magic
  • Must be removed with Greater Restoration, Remove Curse, or Break Enchantment (or similar magic) at an equal level as the curse was cast.

Curses needed respect. As soon as the power of curses were increased, players were eager to gain access to them. Even the Barbarian Orc struck a deal for the power to curse his enemies. Because dump stats were a thing I put a caveat on his power: he had to say the creature's name. Then, as if it were all planned, no one was ever named Bob or Steve again. The Elven captain who gave them so much trouble couldn't be cursed by the name "Glen", as his proper named was Glen'findel'wynar and an Orc with a 5 Int couldn't easily pronounce it.
 

JohnF

Explorer
Great summary article! You captured well all of the threads of curses that had been floating disjointedly around 5e for a long time.

In that instance I ruled that death broke the curse, partially because it's thematic…
And I think that’s a perfectly reasonable outcome - and one with some fun implications.

Van Richten’s Guide recently revisited curses in its “Horror Toolkit” section, and the designers gave curses more components for both mechanical and narrative substance: pronouncements, burdens, and resolutions. I like the structure, and am trying to apply it more liberally to even the more casual cursing moments in my games.
 

Stalker0

Legend
One thing I'm not sure about is whether dying and being resurrected can remove a curse. This came up for our group recently, when a character who was a werebear was killed, and then reincarnated.

In that instance I ruled that death broke the curse, partially because it's thematic (often in werewolf movies and the like, the defeated beast reverts to human form upon death) and partly because it left the choice up to the player (two other party members are werebears, so he could always ask for another nibble).

I don't know if there's a definitive answer, though.
Since remove curse is 3rd level, the idea that death + revivify (3rd level but with a material component) could remove a normal curse seems reasonable to me.
 


Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
So, once characters have identified that there is a curse, such as armor that won't come off, is there an existing mechanical way to determine what it is?

Also, I have found that applying the "sleeping in heavy armor" penalty from Xanathar's to cursed armor can be a huge disadvantage to the character, more than the curse itself.
 

MarkB

Legend
So, once characters have identified that there is a curse, such as armor that won't come off, is there an existing mechanical way to determine what it is?
Basically just experience. See what happens to the person wearing it.

You could research it, but that's at DM's discretion.
 

gelf

Explorer
So, once characters have identified that there is a curse, such as armor that won't come off, is there an existing mechanical way to determine what it is?

Also, I have found that applying the "sleeping in heavy armor" penalty from Xanathar's to cursed armor can be a huge disadvantage to the character, more than the curse itself.
I think legend lore (5th-level divination spell) can reveal curses, with the caveat that the cursed items are 'of legendary importance' - Some may not be, but Demon Armor probably is?
 

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