The Dreadful Winter
Curses and Oaths
The thirst for vengeance carries its own terrible power, and words have weight. When an injustice is committed, the Dark Powers hear the cries of the wronged. If their need for justice is great enough—and if 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.
Scroll down to “Summary” to see the actual process.
In Ravenloft, one’s word can often be binding. A character can choose (and it must be by their own choice, not by force) to cut themselves, dealing 1 point of bleed damage, and swear a blood oath. The oath should be specific, and should generally carry implied consequences. There are other, more obscure ways to trigger blood oaths, but this is the basic gist. Not all blood oaths are enforced by the Dark Powers. Some, however, have been known to damn their speakers for life if unwisely spoken.
Blood oaths are essentially a special type of self-inflicted “curse”.
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.
Like an oath, a curse should be specific, creative, and, if possible, fitting. It does not necessarily need to be wordy—a wronged caliban might hiss, “May the world repay you with all the kindness you’ve shown me,” cursing the subject with the caliban’s physical deformities. But the curse should reflect the personality of the invoker and the circumstances in which the curse is made.
A curse that simply prohibits a character from using their abilities often results in causing more frustration than torment. A far more insidious and effective curse allows the accursd to retain their abilities but makes them suffer whenever using them. For instance, instead of cursing a wizard to never cast spells, a wizard might be cursed to suffer blinding headaches whenever they cast a spell, causing 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.
“Never go for the kill when you can go for the pain.
A 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 so son, for your own sake.
A goblin hurled off a cliff might shout back,
May my last few seconds never leave your mind! AAAAAAAAAH*thud*
This might cause in the target crippling acrophobia, or horrid nightmares of falling, or they might be haunted by the goblin’s screaming ghost.
A pickpocket whose hand has been severed by an overzealous dwarf might warn,
Your wealth will continue to grow, and grow, but it will betray you just when you truly need it!
This might cause the target to lose their purse just when they need to pay off a murderous highwayman, or it might cause their gold to literally turn molten, scalding their own hand away.
Further examples of tailored curses could 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 then discovers that her singing voice has become shrilly inhuman; or a cowardly soldier who abandons their allies before a battle, and is then cursed to flee forever, suffering nightmares if they sleep in the same place twice.
Constant vs. Triggered Effects
Curses generally manifest either constant or triggered effects. A constant effect continually plagues the character, with virtually no respite. These effects can include such drastic changes as being polymorphed into another 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 under certain conditions, or when the accursed character performs specific 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 they lie, or a young heir whose alignment will gradually shift to evil if she ever returns to her ancestral estate. If the afflicted character can avoid the conditions that trigger her curse, she can still lead a normal existence.
Every curse should contain an “escape clause”—a means by which the accursed character can free themself 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 like 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 form of release.
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 instance. The man cursed by the caliban might avoid his curse if he begins showing kindness to other calibans. 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. Sometimes, this is a deliberate clause—someone might be cursed to never see their home again until they have performed a service for the curser, for instance. Sometimes, it’s implicit: The dwarf who cut off the thief’s hands might be able to break the curse by not growing their wealth, meaning that the conditions necessary to activate the rest of the curse do not come to pass. The curse of a burning witch who swears to return after claiming seven of the villagers’ children every winter might be undone by preventing forty-nine children from dying within that timeframe.
A curse can be crafted without an escape clause, but it becomes more difficult to place.
There are a few factors used to gauge how difficult the curse check will be. The most important is Severity. The more severe a curse is, the more difficult it is to place, the more extreme the circumstances should be that motivate it, and the worst the impact will be on the victim.
Embarrassing Curses: The least powerful of curses, used to repay relatively harmless transgressions. They can inflict only minor physical or behavioral changes. The victim suffers a +1 modifier to their Outcast Rating whenever the effects of their curse are apparent, but curses of this severity cannot manifest any more serious game effects.
- Eyes turn a strange color or glow like embers.
- Hands turn black or grow an extra finger.
- Minor spasms—facial tic, switching fingers.
- Hair turns stark white or falls out.
- Forked tongue.
- Gains a strange habit—bays at the moon, growls when angry, prefers meat raw.
Frustrating Curses: 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 their Outcast Rating whenever the effects of their curse are apparent.
- -2 to an ability score.
- -1 to attack rolls or a saving throw.
- Minor Horror, Taint or Corruption effect.
- Significant physical change—face becomes bestial, fur or scales, hunchback, short tail, grow or shrink up to 1 foot, etc.
- Voice sounds inhuman.
- Must eat a strange substance once a day: raw meat, blood, gold, soil, etc.
Troublesome Curses: A curse of this severity dramatically alters the accursed character’s lifestyle, though it cannot place the victim 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 modifier to their Outcast Rating when the effects of their curse are apparent.
- -4 to an ability score or -2 to two ability scores.
- -2 to attack rolls or a saving throw.
- Moderate Horror or Madness effect.
- Haunted by a victim’s ghost.
- Become Shaken under certain stimuli.
- Major physical change: Vestigial wings, hands become spindly and clawed or resemble paws, face becomes monstrous.
- Personality change: gain an uncontrollable lust for an object the curse prevents you from obtaining, or ethical alignment change.
Dangerous Curses: These curses drastically alter the accursed character’s lifestyle and can impose major physical and mental changes. 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; they suffer a +6 modifier to their Outcast Rating when the effects of their curse are apparent.
- -6 to an ability score or -2 to up to three ability scores.
- -3 to attack rolls or a saving throw.
- Become Frightened under certain stimuli.
- Major Horror or Madness effect.
- Afflicted lycanthropy.
- Can only eat a strange substance.
- Moral alignment change when presented with objects of desire.
- Polymorphed into an animal, as baleful polymorph.
- Stalked by a monster.
- Rise as an undead creature after you die.
Lethal Curses: Lethal curses are invoked only to punish the vilest of offenses and can shatter the afflicted character’s way of life—or even cause their 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 they are 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 their Outcast Rating when the effects of their curse are apparent.
- -8 to an ability score, -4 to two ability scores, or -2 to four ability scores.
- -4 to attack rolls or a saving throw.
- Become catatonic with fear under certain stimuli.
- 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, it’s time to determine it it works. 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 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, not can muting the invoker 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.
Curses are resolved through a “curse check”: a Charisma check modified by the situation. The “situation” is judged by the GM according to two key parameters:
Justification: Justification is a measure of the Dark Powers’ justice, weighing whether or not the target of the curse deserves to become its victim. It measures the severity of the offender’s transgression against the invoker’s need and desire for vengeance.
Note that justification is measured from the invoker’s point of view. A band of heroes may well be entirely justified in storming a villain’s lair and striking them down to stop some gruesome sacrifice. But if that villain saw themself as having been terribly wronged—perhaps the sacrifices are preserving the life of a loved one—then their dying curse could still be highly justified.
In game terms, the justification falls into three categories:
- Unjustified: These curses are baseless; the target of the curse does not deserve to be punished and the invoker knows it. A curse may also be considered unjustified if the invoker tries to punish a minor transgression with a curse of too high severity.
- Justified: These curses are generally fair. The invoker has been wronged, the target does deserve some punishment, and the severity is a good match for the transgression. Curses that would otherwise be highly justified can slip to this category if the punishment is too severe, or harms the guilty parties through innocent bystanders (such as killing their children, or turning their acquaintances into murderous beasts).
- Highly Justified: These curses are invoked to repay terrible transgressions. The invoker must have suffered a terrible wrong, and the target must truly deserve to be punished for the crime—and should not be likely to receive justice any other way. For a curse to be highly justified, the offender usually needs to have performed an act worthy of a powers check.
Drama: Curses that enhance the drama of the scene are more powerful than those that add nothing to the game’s atmosphere. Curses should be delivered in moments of heavy emotion, not as offhanded quips or cool threats.
Of special note are curses delivered as the invoker’s dying words. If the invoker uses their final breath to spit their outrage and hatred at the target of the curse, the curse will have a better chance of taking effect. The invoker always dies immediately after delivering such a curse, however, even if they might otherwise have been saved.
Although the reasons for this are unknown, it is known that people who die with a curse on their lips cannot be raised until their dying curse has run its course.
A curse check is a Charisma check, modified by the choices made above as well as by your Powers check.
1. CRAFT THE CURSE
As explained above, the invoker creates a curse, paying special attention to its wording. If you’re doing this during a combat, try to work on the curse before your turn comes up, since you should put some real thought into coming up with an interesting and evocative one.
If your curse’s wording is particularly flavorful, feel free to disclose to me in private (/w gm is the Roll20 command for PMing me) what you have in mind for mechanical impact.
2. DETERMINE JUSTIFICATION
I gauge whether or not the curser is justified, which in turn sets your DC to beat. A brief guideline:
Highly Justified: DC 20
Justified: DC 25
Unjustified: DC 30
3. DETERMINE SEVERITY
I judge the extent of the curse’s effects and apply a severity level, ranging from embarrassing to lethal. This will modify your Powers check.
4. THE POWERS CHECK
You must now make a Powers Check, which I will roll for you. If you succeed, you avoid some corruption, but will take a -5 penalty to your Curse check. If you fail, you gain a +5 to the Curse check, but at what cost? The Dark Powers are watching you, friend.
5. DETERMINE MODIFIERS
Mentions Game Mechanics: -3
Includes Broad Prohibitions: -3
Not Tailored to Victim: -3
No Escape Clause: -3
High Drama: +5
Average Drama: +0
Low Drama: -5
Dying Words: +2
Voice of Wrath Feat: +4
6. ROLL THE CURSE CHECK
Roll that check and see what you get. If you succeed, the curse takes effect.