A Light in Darkness
The thirst for vengeance carries its own terrible power. When an injustice is committed, the Dark Powers hear the cries of the wronged. If their need for justice is great enough — and their hatred burns hotly enough — the Dark Powers may respond. Curses carry the cruel and poetic justice of Ravenloft, but they are also evil and begotten of evil.
Types of Curses
Curses in Ravenloft fall into three basic groups. Adventurers are most familiar with the type of curses created by spellcasters — such as a cleric casting bestow curse. In Ravenloft, however, any character can lay a curse; granted by the Dark Powers and fueled by the hatred of the wronged party, these are known as curses of vengeance. Lastly, there are those who willingly or unwittingly draw the forces of wrath down on themselves; these are self-induced curses.
Curses of Vengeance
Curses of vengeance are common in Gothic tales. A curse of vengeance is brought into being when a character believes herself to be wronged and, in her outrage, wishes damnation upon the offender. Even the humblest peasant can call on terrifyingly powerful forces. Examples might include the following:
- The lord of an estate sets his hounds on a young Vistani caught poaching. The slain boy’s mother promises that the lord loses his firstborn. When the man later sires a child, it is born a murderous spirit naga.
- A hedge wizard is falsely accused of murdering children and burned as a witch. Even as the flames lick at her feet, she swears to one day return and destroy the village that wronged her.
Laying a curse of vengeance requires a curse check (see Laying a Curse below). A curse of vengeance does not grant the target a saving throw, nor can spell resistance protect against it.
Magical curses are those spellcasters create through effects such as _ bestow curse_ or geas. The advantage of curses empowered by magic is that they bypass the curse check, automatically taking effect. However, since they are magical, the victim does receive a saving throw (as listed under the spell description), and spell resistance does apply.
Virtually any effect with lasting, deleterious effects can appear in Ravenloft’s folklore as a curse. Curselike spells such as insanity, baleful polymorph and unhallow appear in many cautionary tales. However, casting these spells does not incur the curse rules used in this section (although curses of vengeance may mirror their effects).
In some cases, a curse’s invoker and its victim are the same person. Driven by inner lusts or obsessions, a character summons the attention of malign forces, voluntarily drawing damnation down upon herself. The most notorious example of a self-induced curse is the tale of Strahd von Zarovich. Desperate to regain what he saw as a wasted youth and steal his younger brother Sergei’s fiancee for himself, Strahd made a pact with death and willingly murdered Sergei to seal the bargain. Strahd was granted the youth he desired — the eternal and hollow youth of a vampire — and cursed to be forever haunted by the woman he betrayed.
In Ravenloft, these self-induced curses are enforced by the Dark Powers and are called powers checks. Any character who desires the dark gifts of corruption can willingly fail a powers check, proving her sincerity by performing an Act of Ultimate Darkness.
Crafting the Curse
The first and most important step of invoking any curse is the creation of the curse itself. Every curse is unique and capable of producing nearly any result. The more atmospheric the curse, the better chance it has of gaining the ear of the Dark Powers.
Let us return to the example of the falsely accused witch. It’s not very gripping if her dying words are trite, “Mark my words, I will be back! And when I return, you will all be sorry!” To make matters worse, the vague curse fails to explain how it will take effect. Consider if that same accused witch settled into an unnatural calm once the fire was lit, staring intensely at each face in the jeering crowd, then delivered this speech as the flames consumed her:
“You would burn me in the name of seven slain babes. The blood of your children is not on my hands — but it will be! Seven children from each generation shall I claim! Seven children times seven winters! And once I have claimed my due, I shall be born again — as one of you! As one of your own children, I shall bring ruin to you all!”
This version of the curse is much more impressive. Not only is the hatred and resolve of the character invoking the curse made clear, the curse provides specific guidelines as to how it will take effect.
A curse should also reflect the personality of the invoker and the circumstances in which the curse is laid. A curse invoked by a character wise in the ways of curses, who has time to contemplate her revenge, may use highly stylized or even poetic language. The legendary curse said to guard the tomb of Tutankhamun, “Death Shall Come on Swift Wings to Him Who Disturbs the Peace of the King,” is an excellent example. The wronged Vistani mother seeking revenge against the manor lord might present her curse in the form of a rhyme:
You, who slew my only son;
You, no better than a snake!
Here is wisdom cruelly won;
Sire no son, for your own sake.
On the other hand, a character gurgling her last words on the end of a sword lacks the time for soliloquies. A dying character, or a crude brute, might spit out a curse that is short and sweet. A wronged caliban might hiss, “May the world repay you with all the kindness you have shown me.” The offender afflicted with this curse might be cursed with a physical deformity that incurs OR modifiers whenever she treats other people with rudeness or cruelty.
Curses should at least imply specific effects, but they should never directly mention game mechanics. Cursing a barbarian to “lose 2 points of Strength when you need it most” disrupts the setting’s atmosphere and should be avoided. However, if the same curse is phrased, “May your strength fail you when you most need it,” achieves the same effect and preserves the flow of the game.
A curse that simply prohibits a character from using her abilities — such as a curse that robs a wizard of her ability to cast spells or permanently cripples an ability score — often results in frustration, not torment. A far more insidious and effective curse allows the accursed to retain her abilities but makes her suffer when she uses them. A better curse for the wizard would be to suffer blinding headaches that strike whenever she casts a spell, dealing 1 point of nonlethal damage per spell level. Curses that warp, rather than destroy, a character’s abilities have a better chance of taking effect.
Crime and Punishment
Curses should be tailored to reflect the offense that provoked them. The most effective curses remind the offender of her transgressions every time they manifest. Our examples of the accused witch and the aggrieved Vistana both provide curses that fit the crime, as does the tale of Strahd von Zarovich.
Further examples of tailored curses include a brutal thug who commits murder in a fit of rage and is then cursed to transform into a werebeast whenever the rage returns; an opera diva who poisons a rival singer but discovers her singing voice has become shrilly inhuman; or a cowardly soldier who abandons his allies before a battle and is cursed to flee forever, suffering nightmares if he sleeps in the same place twice.
Constant or Triggered Effects
Curses generally manifest either constant or triggered effects. A constant effect continually plagues the character, with no respite. These effects can include such drastic changes as being polymorphed into another type of creature, permanent blindness or the curse of undeath. Usually, however, they are much more mild; a severe curse with constant effects may be considered to have “broad prohibitions” and thus has less chance of taking effect.
A triggered effect manifests only under certain conditions, or when the accursed character performs some actions. An afflicted lycanthrope, forced to transform into a ravenous beast in the light of the full moon, is a classic example of a triggered curse. Further examples might include a rogue who stutters whenever she lies or a young heir whose alignment gradually shifts to evil if she ever returns to her ancestral estate. The example of the aggrieved Vistana offers another triggered curse: If the manor lord never fathers a son, the curse never manifests. If the afflicted character can avoid the conditions that trigger her curse, she can lead a normal existence.
Every curse should contain an escape clause — a means by which the accursed character can free herself from the effects of the curse. In Ravenloft, magic cannot permanently dispel curses, so the inclusion of an escape clause is vital. In the case of lethal curses such as undeath, removing the curse may result in the death of the accursed, but even this is a form of release. Most of the time, though, a curse should offer a more substantial chance of escape.
Escape clauses take one of two forms, avoidance or redemption. Avoidance clauses allow the accursed to stop the curse from manifesting by avoiding the conditions that trigger it. A fighter cursed to lose her strength whenever she wields a sword might switch to another weapon, for example. All curses with triggered effects include an avoidance clause by their very nature.
Redemption clauses offer a way for the accursed to permanently break the curse. A character might be cursed to never see her home again until she has come to the aid of seven Vistani; when she completes those seven good deeds, the curse is lifted. Consider the curse of the accused witch one more time: her curse predicts that seven of the villagers’ children will die each winter for seven fears, after which the invoker will return to destroy the village. If the villagers — or the heroes they call on for help — can disrupt the pattern of deaths, the curse may be broken. If forty-nine children have not died within seven fears, the wrathful spirit moves on to its final rest.
Once the DM approves or creates the curse, she must now judge how powerfully the curse would affect the victim’l life. The DM should apply a severity level to each curse, using the guidelines below. Curse severity is divided into five ranks: embarrassing, frustrating, troublesome, dangerous and lethal. A sixth rank is reserved solely for those curses that bind darklords to their domains and is detailed under Powers Checks.
These are the least powerful of curses, used to repay relatively harmless transgressions. They can deal only minor physical or behavioral changes. The accursed character suffers a +1 to her Outcast Rating whenever the effects of her curse are apparent, but curses of this severity cannot manifest any more serious game effects. A well known example of an embarrassing curse is the Vistani penchant for staining thieves’ hands black.
- Eyes turn a strange color or glow like embers
- Minor spasms — facial tic or twitching fingers
- Hair turns stark white or falls out
- Open sores or skin blemishes
- Forked tongue
- Hands turn black or grow an extra finger
- Gains a strange habit — bays at the moon, growls when angry, always shreds something
- Voice stutters or hisses
- Hungers for raw meat, bones, or blood
These curses can interfere with the accursed character’s everyday life. They are usually invoked to repay relatively moderate offenses. Frustrating curses can create minor game effects such as draining Strength. The accursed character suffers a +2 modifier to her Outcast Rating when the effects of her curse are apparent.
- -2 to an ability score
- -1 on attack rolls or a saving throw
- Minor fear, Horror or Madness effect
- Significant physical change: face becomes bestial, fur or scales, hunchback, short tail, grow or shrink up to 1 foot, and so on
- Voice sounds inhuman
- Must eat a strange substance once per day: raw meat, blood, gold, soil, etc.
A curse of this severity dramatically alters the accursed character’s lifestyle, though it cannot place the accursed in mortal danger. Such curses can create major physical changes or even alter the personality of the accursed. Troublesome curses are usually invoked only to punish major offenses, where the offender has caused serious physical harm. The accursed character suffers a +4 to her Outcast Rating when the effects of her curse are apparent.
- -4 to an ability score or -2 to two ability scores
- -2 to attack rolls or a saving throw
- Moderate Fear, Horror or Madness effect
- Haunted by victim’s ghost
- Major physical change: vestigial wings, hands become spindly and clawed or resemble paws, change gender, face becomes monstrous
- Personality change: gain an uncontrollable lust for an object the curse prevents you from obtaining, ethical alignment change
These curses drastically alter the accursed character’s lifestyle and can impose major physical or mental changes. Fortunately, dangerous curses are typically invoked only to repay the most serious of offenses, such as murder or torture. A curse of this severity can often make the accursed character appear monstrous; she suffers a +6 modifier to her Outcast Rating when the effects of her curse are apparent.
- -6 to an ability score or -2 to three ability scores
- -3 on attack rolls or a saving throw
- Major Fear, Horror or Madness effect
- Afflicted lycanthropy
- Can eat only a strange substance: raw flesh, blood, bones and so on
- Moral alignment change when presented with an object of desire
- Stalked by a monster
- Rise as an undead creature after death
Lethal curses are invoked only to punish the vilest of offenses and can shatter the afflicted character’s way of life — or even cause her death. The invoker can lay a lethal curse only in a moment of intense emotion, usually grief or rage. The recipient of a lethal curse has often proven that she is beyond redemption. One of the most infamous examples of a lethal curse is the Vistani mishamel, which causes the victim to literally melt. Lethal curses can create immediate, drastic, physical and mental changes. The accursed character suffers a +8 modifier to her Outcast Rating when the effects of her curse are apparent.
- -8 to an ability score, -4 to two ability scores, or -2 to four ability scores
- -4 on attack rolls or saving throw
- Torturous death
- Immediate, permanent transformation into a monster: hag, undead, construct and so on
- Permanent alignment change
- Must kill once a day or suffer cumulative penalties
Laying the Curse
Once the curse is created, the DM needs to determine whether it takes effect. All curses must be delivered in some demonstrable way — curses gain their strength from the emotion invested by the invoker. In most cases, the invoker speaks (or shrieks) the curse, loudly and clearly. However, curses are not sonic-based attacks; the target does not need to hear the curse for it to take effect, nor can silence spells prevent a curse from being laid. It is also possible to invoke curses through physical acts, such as inscribing words of warning on a tomb or pouring one’s hatred into a cursed magic item.
Justification is a measure of the Dark Power’s justice, weighing whether the target of the curse deserves to be its victim. It measures the severity of the offender’s transgression against the invoker’s need and desire for vengeance. The more justified the curse, the better chance it has of taking effect.
Note that justification is measured from the invoker’s point of view — whether she believes she has been wronged is more important than the truth. A band of heroes may well be entirely justified in storming a villain’s lair and striking her down to stop some gruesome sacrifice. If that villain saw herself as having been terribly wronged — perhaps the sacrifices were preserving the life of a loved one — then her dying curse could still be highly justified.
In game terms, justification falls int three categories:
Unjustified: These curses are baseless: the target of the curse does not deserve to be punished and the invoker knows it. A character who tries to abuse the power of curses by flinging them at every foe she encounters may soon find all her curses falling into this category. Curses can also be considered unjustified if the invoker tries to punish a minor trasngression with a curse of too high a severity.
Justified: These curses are generally fair. The invoker has been wronged, the target does deserve some punishment, and the severity of the curse is a good match for the severity of the transgression. Curses that would otherwise be highly justified can slip to this category if the punishment is too severe. The accused witch is a good example: she has been terribly wronged, and the villagers do deserve her wrath. Yet, her curse is too monstrous and harms the guilty parties through their innocent children.
Highly Justified: These curses are invoked to repay terrible transgressions. The invoker must have suffered terrible wrong, and the target must truly deserve to be punished for the crime. For a curse to be highly justified, the offender usually needs to have performed an act worthy of a powers check. The grieving Vistana is an example of a highly justified curse — the manor lord has killed the invoker’s son, and he is unlikely to receive justice through any other means.
Curses that enhance the drama of the scene are more powerful than those that add nothing to the game’s atmosphere. Calmly tossing off a curse as though making a quip about the weather carries very low drama. Meanwhile, a curse delivered in a hysterical display of grief, with the invoker tearing at her hair and weeping uncontrollably, would probably be considered high drama, as would any curse delivered so powerfully that the player’s of the game pause for a moment to soak it in.
Of special note are curses delivered as the invoker’s dying words. If the invoker uses her final breath to spit her outrage and hatred at the target of the curse, the curse has a better chance of taking effect. The invoker always dies immediately after delivering such a curse, however, even if she might otherwise have been saved. Some sages believe that the invoker somehow channels her life force into the curse itself, adding to its strength. It is known that people who die with a curse on their lips cannot be raised until their dying curse has run its course.
Making the Curse Check
When one NPC curses another, the DM should usually decide whether the curse takes effect based on one simple question: does it add to the story? An evocative curse that enhances the drama of the scene should take effect, while a lackluster curse should not.
If a player character is involved, either as the invoker or the target of a curse, curses of vengeance are resolved through a curse check. To make a curse check, follow these steps.
- Craft the Curse: The invoker creates the curse, paying special attention to its wording. An evocative curse is more effective than one that is vague or hastily thrown together.
- Determine Justification: The DM decides how justified the curse is. This determines the DC of the Charisma check:
- Highly Justified: DC 20
- Justified: DC 25
- Unjustified: DC 30
- Determine Severity: The DM judges the extent of the curse’s effects and applies a severity level from embarrassing to lethal.
- The Powers Check: The DM rolls a powers check for the invoker. The chance of failure is based on the curses severity (see the Powers Check section). If the invoker fails the powers check, the dark powers have heard and responded to her dark desire. The curse has a better chance of taking effect, but the invoker must pay a terrible price.
- Determine Modifiers: Tally all the applicable curse check modifiers from the table below.
- Roll the Curse Check: The invoker rolls a Charisma check against the DC set by justification, adding all applicable modifiers. If the curse check succeeds, the curse takes effect.
Curse Check Modifiers
|-3||Mentions Game Mechanics|
|-3||Includes Broad Prohibitions|
|-3||Not Tailored to Victim|
|-3||No escape clause|
|Powers Check Result|
|+4||Voice of Wrath Feat|
The only way to permanently free an afflicted character from a curse in Ravenloft is through the curse’s escape clause. The Vistani can revoke their curses at will, but no other invoker can do so — once the curse takes effect, it assumes a life of its own.
Some spells (such as remove curse) can offer temporary relief from the effects of curses (10 minutes / caster level), but the accursed character most first succeed at a Will save. For magical curses, the DC of the spell’s saving throw is determined normally, but the severity of the curse adds an additional modifier, as shown below.
For example, if an 8th-level cleric with scores of 15 in Wisdom and Charisma casts bestow curse to lay a troublesome curse, the saving throw DC is 10 + 3 (spell level) + 2 (Wisdow modifier) + 2 (severity modifier), for a final DC of 17.
With curses of vengeance, the DC of this save is 10 + 1/2 the invoker’s HD + the invoker’s Charisma modifier + severity modifier. If this same cleric invoked a troublesome curse of vengeance, the save DC would be DC 18 (10+4+2+2).
|DC Mod||Curse Severity|