One of the best parts in D&D is getting that sweet sweet LOOT! You just risked your life slaying demons, disarming traps, and surviving gelatinous oozes. Why go through all of that if there's no pay day waiting for you at the end? The treasure hoard at the end of a long adventure is as old as the fantasy genre itself. It's not like Smaug was sitting on a pile of "the friends we made along the way" XD
But we need look no further than that same series to encounter the dark side of treasures: curses.
The One Ring is the perfect example of a cursed magic item. It's powerful, granting invisibility and preternaturally long life to whoever wields it, so you want to use the thing (beyond its ability to influence mortals into desiring it). But the downside makes that power a risk. In this case the risk doesn't come to fruition until much later, but the pattern of "power with a price" is well established.
We see that pattern play out in all manor of cursed objects in D&D. For example, the Shield of Missile Attraction makes you resistant to ranged attacks - a fairly powerful ability considering it doesn't care about damage types or weapons being magical. However, its curse will automatically draw any nearby ranged attack to you, thus making you more likely to be hit. The risk-and-reward of this item is that the defenses gained negate the increased number of attacks heading your way, but that bargain might not always pay off. There's also plenty of cursed weapons that grant mighty powers, but prevent their wielder from using any other weapons. Jealous little things.
But on the other hand, D&D also has plenty of what one might call "gotcha items" - items whose curses are so terrible or subtle as to completely negate any possible bonus that the item might otherwise provide. For example, the Stone of Ill Luck appears to be a Stone of Good Luck, granting the wielder a +1 bonus to everything. But the curse has the Game Master secretly subtract 2 from everything that character does, resulting in an overall -1 to everything. And because the GM applies it in secret, the character / player is unlikely to discover for a long time. When they do, it's unlikely to be a fun revelation.
This begs the question of "why are cursed items a thing?"
With the first type - those that offer a meaningful exchange of power for risk - one could see the entertainment there. But for the second? If part of the joy of exploring these dangerous worlds is to attain powerful treasures, then wouldn't cursed items spoil that? How many curses must a party encounter before they begin to suspect the world (and/or the GM) is too cruel and the trouble not worth it?
Magic is Not Trustworthy
One possible, strictly narrative explanation is that magic is not trustworthy. This is a common trope in many fantasy worlds. With magic comes suspicion, and so your average person would rather go without the use of any magic in their life, or even be called to destroy magic and those who wield it.
GM vs PC Mentality
Put more kindly, this could stem from GMs wanting to provide challenge but missing the mark on fun. PCs in D&D are very powerful. So much so that many GMs, both old and new, can struggle to challenge them meaningfully. Hiding secret debuffs in their treasure can certainly help mitigate that, but it's a fine line to walk. You don't want them to feel like their efforts are in vain. Random, extremely negative cursed objects aren't nearly as fun as curses that offer risk and reward, or that at least tell a story.
Cursed Treasure is Also a Trope
And this is what we mean by "curses that tell a story". We need look no further than one of our favorite movies, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, to see that cursed treasure can drive a story.
The acts of villains in the past could leave dark magics imbued into the items they hoarded, leaving present-day heroes stuck with the task of dealing with those consequences. When deploying curses in this way, make sure that the party has plenty of opportunities to discover the curse and interact with it. It should be as much of a character as an NPC, and purging or curing the curse should form a major plot point in the campaign.
Cursed Tools (The Good Kind)
While books like the Dungeon Master's Guide have plenty of examples of cursed objects, they might be too specific of a magic item (i.e. one that your group wouldn't want to use), too brutal in cost, or simply not what you're looking for. And speaking of Curse of the Black Pearl, something the DMG doesn't offer guidance on is creating curses for entire hoards of treasure. What if a whole pile of gold were cursed, and removing but a single piece bestowed that curse to the plunderer?
This is where our friends at Windmill Slam Games can help with their latest Kickstarter, Treasures from the Quay!
This book has a wealth of roll tables to help flesh out your magic items with additional lore and interesting quirks. It's system neutral, so you can translate the table results into whatever TTPRG system you are using - a handy tool for anyone looking to randomly generate more content!
Best of all, it includes an entire chapter dedicated to the under-represented fantasy of cursed treasure hoards. And Windmill Slam has been kind enough to partner with Day 20 so that we can bring you a sneak preview of this chapter!!!
Cursed Hoard Preview PDF
Just for you, here's a preview PDF of Chapter 13: Cursed Hoards.
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There's much more than cursed hoards here. Haunted items, bizarre origins, unique cultures of currency, and dozens of other roll tables fill the pages of Treasures from the Quay; a must-have for any Game Master!
Let's take this table for a spin! Rolling a d20 for the table gets us an 8, which is the curse of "Hiccups". So any character that loots treasure from this hoard "suffers from constant hiccups".
This is a great example of a low-stakes, comedic curse. How about we flesh this out and come up with some mechanical consequences for it?
The Story. Years ago, a group of pleasant fae inhabited the low hill under which this treasure is now buried. They were peaceful towards their neighbors, if a bit mischievous, and the catacombs beneath the hill were not always filled with treasure. Rather, they were a place of lore and study where the fae kept crystals containing the memories of their people.
One day a marriage was set to take place upon that hill. The happy couple had pleaded with the fae for months to allow this. With the agreement that the people would be respectful of the fae, the wedding was allowed. But during one of the dozens of toasts, an unfortunate case of hiccups took place, marring the speaker's pronunciation of the fae queen's name. Laughter rose in the audience, and the queen was most displeased. As punishment for this folly, she cursed the dowry to bestow the same marring of tongue to any that dare delight in its glimmer.
Chaos beset the town for weeks as the dowry was spent and scattered, until finally it was amassed and stored beneath the hill. The fae have since left, taking their memories with them. All but one - a single crystal lies among the coins and finery containing the queen's recollection of that most terrible hiccup.
Should a descendent of the married couple issue a formal apology (by fae custom) to the queen, who now resides far away, the curse will be lifted.
Mechanics (for D&D 5e). Any creature afflicted by the curse of hiccups has disadvantage on Charisma checks and is unable to hold their breath underwater.