OD&D cursed items that are horrible

This entry is part 14 of 18 in the series New Schooler Reads OD&D

As a late-edition player, I’m finding a lot to like in OD&D, but there’s also a lot that mystifies me. The cursed items from the Greyhawk Supplement are solidly in the latter category. Finding some of these items is the narrative equivalent to the DM saying “You have a heart attack and die.”

Consider these items:

Horn of Collapsing: An instrument which seems to be a Horn of Blasting, but when it is winded it will cause the ceiling immediately above the user to collapse upon him, causing from 6-60 points of damage. If blown in the open it causes a rain of rocks to fall from the sky upon its user, and from 5-30 of such missiles will shower down, doing from 1-3 points damage each.

This one is not only a literal “rocks fall you die” item, it has annoying mechanics. If you’re inside, you take 6d10 damage. Hilarious. If you’re outside, though, the DM is supposed to roll 5d6, add that up, and then roll THAT NUMBER of d6 (an average of 18 dice), dividing each die total by two? Does that curve really vary meaningfully from, say, 6d10, which does about the same average damage?

Necklace of Strangulation: A device which is identical to a Necklace of Missiles, but when placed about the neck will strangle and kill its wearer in 2-5 turns, it requires a Limited Wish or Wish to remove it.

Oh, look, it’s not just an insta-death item because it can be reversed with Wish and Limited Wish! Well, guess what: so can any death. (In the description of the Wish spell: “Wishes that unfortunate adventures had never happened should be granted.”) Might as well just come out and say the necklace “immediately kills the wearer, no save.”

Poisonous Cloak: A cloak indistinguishable from others which are magical. When it is put on it immediately kills its wearer by poison. No saving throw is possible.

There you go. Honesty!

Scarab of Death: A scarab which appears to be any of the other types, but when it is held in the hand for a full turn, or when it is placed in a pack, a bag, or some other place near a person’s body it turns to a horrible burrowing monster which digs directly to the person’s heart and kills him.

DM: You find a magical scarab.
Player: I’m not using any magic items until I’m back in town, standing next to a cleric with Water Breathing, Neutralize Poison, Cure Disease, Remove Curse, Wish, and Limited Wish! Making sure not to touch it directly, I’ll wrap the scarab in several layers of cloth and throw it in my backpack.
DM: It turns into a horrible burrowing monster which digs directly to your heart and kills you. No save.
Player: …

There are many more cursed items; the schtick is that every type of magic item (scarab, horn, etc) has a cursed item, so you never know for sure if a magic item is going to kill you. In fact, sometimes the deadly version of the item is much more common than the helpful one. According to the random treasure tables, more than half of all bowls are Bowls of Watery Death. 75% of all carpets are of Smothering. Half of necklaces are Necklaces of Strangulation.

What recourse do the players have here? In Grayhawk, the Identify spell hadn’t been invented yet. I guess spellcasters could cast the 5th level spells Commune and Contact Higher Plane every time they found a magic item, but I’d think the gods would get sick of that. (Anyway, Contact Higher Plane has a good chance to drive the caster insane.) And Raise Dead is a 5th level spell anyway, so might as well just wait and cast that instead.

Why not skip cursed items, and just say this: “Whenever someone gets a new magic item, flip a coin. If it’s tails, they die! There’s nothing they can do to lower this risk!”

I get that death is common in OD&D. I get that sometimes the player dies through no fault of his or her own. But I don’t see how it’s fun for the DM to place an item, knowing that there’s a 100% chance it will kill a character. I just can’t get it out of my spoiled, 4e, everything-is-padded head that PC death should involve, at minimum, one of a) an attack roll, b) a saving throw, c) a bad decision, or d) a missed clue.

Here’s my challenge: Can anyone contribute an anecdote about a time they used one of these insta-death items, and it was fun?

Next week: OD&D cursed items that are not that bad!

Series Navigation<< OD&D cursed items that are not that badWarriors of Synnibarr by Gary Gygax >>

29 Responses to “OD&D cursed items that are horrible”

  1. Jay Adan says:

    We never used those that I recall, but the THREAT of them was palpable. You always knew that it was possible for the next magic item to kill you outright and it made every treasure very exciting.

  2. I started gaming (primarily DMing) in 2e, and I never used cursed items like these because I wanted to have as many friends at the end of the session as I had at the beginning. That, and I could never come up with any kind of interesting story that involved them.

  3. Pandora says:

    The only time I can see these being not 100% punch-the-DM-in-the-face items is at first level where you life is cheap, and a new PC is 5 mins of work (or saying “congrats, Bob the Henchman is now 1st level, take him over Dave), or at really high levels where its just there to burn through “extra lives”.

    Outside of this, using insta-death items seems kind of a dick move. I prefer more entertainingly cursed items, that change the user, or provide a negative with a positive (like a +2 sword with an increased fumble range)

    I can see an in-universe excuse for the proportions though. These are clearly the botched enchanted items made by apprentices.

    Adventure potential – the players come across a garbage heap of cursed magic items. What do they do after the first death?

  4. OtspIII says:

    I love cursed items, but these are boring. Items that are indistinguishable from good items or that essentially can’t be countered don’t really add any strategy to the game–they just kill you or they don’t. I’m fine with a necklace that will kill you if you put it on–it just means that you try to devise some method for testing it before putting it on, or bring a cleric with remove curse (suffering a bit of opportunity cost), or just wait until you’ve gotten it identified back in town before putting it on. These seem dedicated to eliminating the testing/remove cursing options, and the scarab even nullifies town identification.

  5. Michael says:

    I think you’re using these items unimaginatively

    Just don’t drop them in. Drop them in *with lots of hints to their existence*. (My philosophy on traps too).

    Cursed items like this are great when people KNOW they are, or at least have a distinctly high chance of figuring it out.

  6. Philo Pharynx says:

    If you subscribe to the player-centric view of roleplaying, these are perfectly fair. After all, any player worth his salt will have his character see a scarab and know not to touch it at all. The best players will have a henchman touch it, but a henchman that they don’t care about and not in view of any other henchmen. If the player ever fails at that, then his new character mystically learns a valuable lesson and another line gets entered into the Tome of Treasure Examining Procedures.

    My favorite cursed items are the one where the players get to choose to use it. They don’t stick to the player, but the player has a reason to want the item. Like an axe with an increased critical range, but it also hurts the wielder on a crit.

  7. Jeff B. says:

    I come from the 1e era; I began playing in 1979. So, cursed items were always possible. I don’t have just a single anecdote to tell. As Jay Adan says, the threat of them lent a certain frisson of excitement and uncertainty to finding treasure. That in itself helped make the game fun; you could never be sure what was going to happen, and that was exciting. The few times cursed items were found, they didn’t bog things down or cause any kind of strife among the players. It became a matter of trying to figure out how to break the curse or remove the item or do something with the item without triggering the curse. You’d be surprised how often amputation was the first inclination of my players in solving the cursed item problem.

  8. ELH says:

    I’m pretty sure these items existed to force everyone to cast Legend Lore, which was apparently a mechanic Gygax loved in his campaigns. Note that Legend Lore essentially forces the caster to sit around “waiting” until the lore shows up, which I read as a excuse for the DM to stall for a week or two while devising an clever riddle or obscure bit of rhyme.

    Gygax presumably wanted everyone who found a new magic item to use this spell, despite it taking a week or so of down-time, instead of just trying the item out experimentally. How do you prevent people from just trying out the item and saving their 6th level slots for Death Spell and Disintegrate? Lots of horrible cursed items! Hey, let’s see if you’re so quick to avoid casting Legend Lore next time, pal.

    I also read all the annoying restrictions on AD&D’s Identify (expensive, need to put on the item, etc) as a way to “protect” the superior utility of Legend Lore.

    Note also that, in the introduction to Eldritch Wizardry, Tim Kask sells the new artifact system (and the whole associated “henchmen with artifacts go insane and kill you” mechanic) as a way to make Legend Lore “invaluable” again. As if that were a higher priority than, say, having lots of cool artifacts around for their own sakes. From Kask’s introduction, you’d think the Hand and Eye of Vecna were invented solely as a support mechanic to force everyone to cast a level-6 version of Identify.

    Somebody at TSR *really* loved making up riddles!

  9. Jason says:

    Those are not the best cursed items, but they existed in much the same way as level draining undead – the threat created tension and drama. And of course the main way (besides legend lore) to discover a magic items property was experimentation, either with a 10 foot pole or a henchman, or even the halfling, he’ll try anything once. Of course expensive reincarnation/resurrection spells also added another layer of tension and drama.

  10. Sean Holland says:

    I am of the school of though that says curses should be triggered by a more meaningful decision than “I pick up the item”. Curses should be the cost of certain classes of items, not just an excuse to kill characters.

    Though I never recall running across many of these back in the D&D/AD&D days, cursed shields, weapons and helms of opposite alignment were more the crazy cursed item we ended up encountering.

  11. Jake says:

    The early D&Ders really seem to have gotten off on TAKING GIANT GAMBLES. That being said, the version of the Horn of Collapsing descibed above (I don’t have my Greyhawk Adventures with me at work) is different from the one in the DMG, which contains the important paragraph: “If it is sounded without first speaking the proper rune, or 10% of the time in any event, the following will result:”

    After the “cursed” effects described, it continues: “Proper use of a horn of collapsing enables the character to sound it while it is pointed at the roof overhead from 30′ to 60′ beyond the user. The effect is to collapse a section of roof up to 20′ wide and 20′ long.”

    I would also say that our group, at least, would be able to make a fun mini-adventure out of hiring the proper diggers to excavate a collapsed cave to retrieve the body of our fallen companion while the corpse is still intact enough to be raised from the dead. ;)

  12. Jake says:

    Oh! And I just realized whose blog I was commenting on. Paul, I contributed to your kickstarter, got the book of bonus materials, and I LOVE LOVE LOVE your Castle of Redrill adventure. The tick-headed men gave me SHIVERS.

    Also your “random dungeon generator as a dungeon map” drawing and the one with all of the monsters are both framed and on the wall of my dragon room to confuse and intimidate my girlfriend’s straight-laced lawyer friends.

  13. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Okay, the first time we encountered the Bag of Devouring.

    We didn’t know there was such a thing.

    My oldest brother still calls it “The Night We Fed Ernie to the Monster” and we still laugh about it.

    If you can’t laugh about your character dying, you shouldn’t play OD&D.

    Also, go read Dying Earth. If a wizard tried to do something and got it wrong, it was dangerous. We always figured all the cursed items were magic user experiments gone wrong.

    It’s a wargame, and figures die in a wargame sometimes.

  14. Adam says:

    I played a game once at a local convention where the necklace was not-so-secretly the point. We’d gone through a dungeon and found a few different treasures; one of the rumors we picked up on the way was that one of them was cursed. We figured out by a process of elimination that it was “probably” the necklace.

    On the way back to the city, we were beset by a high-level NPC Thief and his bandit crew, and they demanded our treasure. It was a set-up all the way, because I said to the DM “I clutch at the necklace as if I’m trying to hide it, but I’m making it too obvious.”

    You can see where it went from there. The DM said that, of five groups he’d run it for, only we and one other figured out that that was what he was going for. Two groups realized it was cursed and left it, and one group didn’t figure it out until they found out the hard way. In a campaign I wouldn’t be so willing to go along with the railroad, but for a convention game it was a lot of fun. But in a campaign, on the other hand, you’d have opportunity to dig up legends and rumors about cursed items.

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  16. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Actually, Paul, I answered this a year ago.

    Go reread your own blog about “D&D is a game about a world, not people.”


    “Coming in view of the chasm’s opposite verge, he thought only of reaching it, and redoubled his pace. But at this point the web gave way beneath him. He caught wildly at the broken, dangling strands, but could not arrest his fall. With several pieces of Atlach-Nacha’s weaving clutched in his fingers, he was precipitated into that gulf which no one had ever voluntarily tried to plumb.

    This, unfortunately, was a contingency that had not been provided against by the terms of the seventh geas.”

    The end of “The Seven Geases” by Clark Ashton Smith.

    As for “why would this be fun for the referee,” a world with no danger becomes dull and drab, and a world where all magic is wholesome and effectual becomes boring and loses its wonder. D&D is a wargame; a duel of wits between the referee and the players. Asking why the referee would place a cursed item is like asking why the referee would place a minefield on a miniatures battlefield, lest a player vehicle be destroyed. It is surviving hazards that makes the game fun, and those hazards that cannot be blocked, foretold, or prevented are the most exhilarating of all.

    Just like undead that drain levels permanently; they made the game a thousand times more interesting than when level drain was only temporary.

    Sometimes you hold your breath and hope.

  17. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Also, “how to transport this dangerous item in order to get it to a sage to identify” was a big part of the fun too. Right up there with “You have found 1,000,000 gold pieces worth of copper coins, how are you going to transport it?

    One person’s “dick move” is another person’s “fun strategy puzzle.”

  18. Gil says:

    I remember we usually had mules and hirellings to try the magic items first.

  19. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    That’s what morale rules are for.

  20. paul says:

    @Jay: I can see a smart ref using cursed items just enough to add a frisson of fear to magic treasures. Especially as @pandora says at early levels and as @michael and @adam says with hints.

    @Philo @Jason and @Gil, I read the AD&D manuals before I ever saw this type of play so I remember that Gary pretty much forbade using henchmen testing magic items – they’d expect to keep any magic items they tested. And as Gronan says, morale rules.

    @Harbinger @Otsp and @SeanHolland I agree!

    @ELH Very interesting about Legend Lore! I forgot about that spell. That would work on these items – Legend Lore, like Identify, is from the Greyhawk supplement! In the original books, sadly, there’s no way to ID cursed items!

    @Jake Thanks for your kind words! If you liked the Redrill adventure, you should join in the Redrill-based D&D game being played in the sidebar. Mandra the tick woman is now an important member of the party!

    @Gronan – this whole post was a trap to get you to reveal more of your stories. And you fell for it! No save!

    I guess my perception from reading these items was that they are totally unavoidable. That doesn’t have to be the case though. As a DM, I like to watch the game and wonder what’s going to happen. I wouldn’t mind a no-save death to a poison cloak if the player was stupid enough to accept it from a centaur. In fact, when playing with Gronan, I had a lot of “we should have seen that coming” moments – like the floating-dagger corridor or the door-on-fire room (although that last was Tavis’s doing). There were no “that was cheap” moments. And I bet that there weren’t a lot of “that was cheap” moments in Gary’s game either – I bet Gary didn’t hang players, he gave them enough rope to hang themselves. Gronan, what was that story about the guy who walked into a room full of gems?

  21. Thoth says:

    Hm… Well necklaces of strangulation appeared at least twice; one group first tried it on a monkey, then spent a good deal of time and plotting getting it into an enemies wedding gifts in place of a useful item. Another character actually put one on despite being pretty sure it was cursed and the rest of the group urging him to test it another way. The rest of the group then swore at him, dug a hook under it through his neck, and promptly started yanking it through his neck, one small step and one cure wounds effect at a time. He lived – even the spine is just tissue to be healed – but it was NOT a good experience for him. Still, they eventually used it as a component in a ritual that called for the sacrifice of a powerful magical device; it didn’t have to be a GOOD one.

    Now, finding the poisonous cloak wrapped around a dessicated corpse that hadn’t decayed because even the worms, insects, fungi, and bacteria were being poisoned was sort of a giveaway. They determined that the cloak left no trace of poison in the things it killed and thereafter found many uses for it. Preserving hides for later sale, curing leather, etc, etc, etc…

    Scarabs always went into metal boxes; if you found that you had a Scarab of Death – and chickens were your friends there – it became an EXCELLENT item to try and plant on a big monster or really dangerous opponent. I had a lot of fun arranging to feed one to a rather nasty dragon once.

    The Horn of Collapsing went to the fighter type with a hundred or so hit points, and was actually quite useful – if annoying when it occasionally backfired.

    As a rule, a good old-school GM made sure that there were plenty of clues around; if you paid attention and thought, your odds of survival were generally pretty good – and most cursed items could be quite useful if you were clever.

  22. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Yes, we did leave them around randomly, without clues or signs. You’re asking the wrong question.

    These items have nothing to do with characters. They are about PLAYER skill.

    Instead of “It’s a magic cloak! Score!” you have another situation:

    “Here is a magic cloak. It might be a powerful boon, or it might kill you. How are you the player going to react to mitigate the hazard to your character?”

    We knew damn well there were cursed magic items, we didn’t need “clues.” D&D was written as a wargame to test player skill. How you explored a world where you couldn’t know if that cloak would turn you invisible or kill you was part of the game.

    The “no skill” answer is to try the damn thing on. Anybody with an ounce of sense would bung it into a backpack and take it back to town and pay a Sage to figure it out. That’s what they were for.

    The game is about making good use of resources, and NPC specialists are one form of resource.

    The game is a duel of wits between referee and players.

  23. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    Also, here IS a hint:

    Avoid the sage with the “Nollege R Us” sign.

  24. Svafa says:

    @Thoth: Hmm… I might have to include a poisonous cloak in our campaign after your story/description. With the amount of skinning, tanning, and trophy collecting the group does, they would surely put it to good use… after one of them put it on despite the warnings, of course.

    With the number of artifacts I’ve been throwing around and their intrinsic role in the game’s setting (they’re essentially Vecna’s rule-the-world scheme), I should take a look at more cursed items and making sure to include them.

  25. Laura says:

    I get that people are saying a world with no danger is boring, but I feel like insta-kill cursed items are unnecessary to add to the danger (there are monsters and stuff). To me, it’s super boring having this whole structure of anxiety and safeguards you have to learn by rote when touching or handling anything you find, ever. Let’s just skip that busywork and grab stuff!

    Of course, my “lick the orb first, ask questions later” style of play would have killed me within minute one on any strategy-based or pre-3rd ed. D&D session. I definitely prefer the school of thought that says, okay, here’s your bonus, but you ALSO get this zany side effect. There is no ceiling on my zaniness tolerance, though!

  26. Michael (Gronan) Mornard says:

    @Laura, different strokes for different folks. I understand not everybody likes the “deadly wargame” style of D&D, I just want to make the point that we DID like it, and these were deliberate design choices.

    I’ve also played miniatures games where my lone GI is crawling through a minefield searching for mines with a bayonet. The GI has the bayonet, that is, the land mine does not have the bayonet.

  27. paul paul says:

    Right! D&D is a big tent.

    so finding a mine with your bayonet is… good? slightly better than finding it with your head?

  28. Matt N says:

    Well…… in 2e there was a wizard subclass (the witch) I believe from the complete book of wizards that started with 2000 gps worth of magic items. (The intent was a hand full of low level potions or a utility item) Cursed items were worth 0 gp, so you could get any number of them and with some creativity you could do all sorts of things.

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