Last year my best friend and I saw Maleficent in theatres. Not by choice, but he used emotional blackmail to ensure I was there, so I wasn’t in the best of moods as I watched the plot break under it’s own weight.
And so as I sat there, listening to some amazing episodes of The F-Plus — under the pretense that my noise-isolating headphones helped me cope with the film’s excess volume —I decided to at least get something good out of the cinematic trainwreck I was watching.
And that’s where the idea of modelling curses hit me. Specifically modelling curses in Fate. Check after the break for how I did it, and how somebody else improved it.
My initial idea was to model curses with a simple fill-in-the-blanks structure, as below:
______ is cursed with ______ until ______.
Each of those three blanks woul be an aspect, or carry as much narrative weight as one. They specific who or what is cursed, what the curse does, and how it can be undone. That last point is the most important, as undoing a curse can be an entire plot seed in itself.
I then added a single approach, Malice, which represents the power of the curse and the difficulty in removing it (if removal is indeed possible). Malice would also be used if the curse had to lash out, either to twist fate against the victims or prevent outsiders from interfering.
And in the end, what I had created was a really roundabout way of making NPCs with way too many aspects and not enough to back them up. The three-aspect sentence structure is also clunky, making it so a curse has to be built a certain way in order to fit. Bad game design.
A Wild Designer Appears!
I was mulling over this with my roleplaying group when a fellow designer known only as Consilium spoke up, inserting themselves directly into my train of thought like a very rude carriage. They’ve actually published games, so I would be a fool not to listen to their advice.
Seems to me like that leaves you with two cases, and three basic shapes it could take, then. The witch could curse a PC, or another NPC, but either way the really important part is “how break curse”, and for that I only see three answers that aren’t horrible to do in an RPG.
Consilium went on to outline three scenarios for cursebreaking as adventure design:
1: the witch will lift the curse when she damn well pleases. She’ll have an ultimatum, and knowing what to do will be easy or automatic; doing it will be the tricky or unpleasant part. It should probably be already factually obvious IC that “just kill the witch” is a poor strategy.
This approach already has some design behind it, but in another game. Grim World introduced the concept of Death Moves to the Dungeon World game, and included a bunch for earlier playbooks. The Witch, upon death, can curse someone and all of their descendents to the end of time… unless they beg the witch for forgiveness. In the afterlife. So the curse becomes in essence an undead-themed dungeon crawl, but for your enemies instead of the party.
2: the witch may or may not have the ability to lift the curse, but performing the correct ritual will break the curse whether the witch likes it or not. With this kind of answer, you need /really/ solid rules that make the curse itself a source of information on how to break the curse, unless you expressly want to make the game explicitly all about magicsleuthing, or expressly give magicjerks the power to just sidestep curses by rolling Lore or whatever.
Consilium notes that this is the harder of the three to do properly, especially in a system like Fate which is more concerned with punching nazis and high-school magicians. Some flavours do it better than others, such as The Dresden Files and the upcoming Breakfast Cult, but even they spell out that the main point of play is investigation and discovery with action on the side.
3: whether the witch can lift the curse herself or not, there’s some simple but unpalatable procedure that in essence always works. It probably hurts or has a huge personal cost, or is inherently unappealing, like say “sacrifice your worldly goods for a needy child” or something, but the focus will be on someone either nerving up to do the thing (and possibly needing help), or trying to wriggle out of doing the thing (and possibly needing help).
This has the most potential for play, but at this point its clear that my initial curse-as-pure-aspects approach doesn’t really work. It would either render them trivial or all-encompassing with nothing inbetween, and Consilium is typically wary of anything that hands all the narrative power over to the GM without anything solid to back up their plans. So you either have to construct elaborate diagrams about the exact nature of what the curse will and will not do for all of its moving parts, or…
A more fun approach might be to make curses on PCs into negaStunts. They cost no Refresh, don’t provide Fate points, can’t be Invoked or Compelled, but instead they have a specific, defined twist they impose on the PCs rules. For example, say, “Lead Tongue: the witch stole your gift of gab, and now whenever you talk to someone of the opposite sex, you have to use your [crappy Skill] instead of your [much better Skill]”. A plain-Jane Skill-swap Stunt! Except ow that hurts.
And boom goes the dynamite. Negative Stunts are an amazing idea, vast untapped virgin design space. And then I had the idea to expand them out, tie them into a package with maybe one or more aspects, uterlise the full Fate Fractal and make a curse a living, breathing part of the game that your characters feel. The concept blossomed in my mind, and collided with another idea I had been kicking around lately: A Fate way of handling Haunts from Pathfinder.
The Lingering Curse
Curses are Extras, but bad ones. A curse affects either a place, person, or object; it has one or more Aspects representing its nature and abilities; and one or more Stunts giving it mechanical bite.
When a PC is afflicted by a curse, it fills in one of their consequence slots (Minor for Fair, Moderate for Great, and Major for Fantastic) with one of its aspects, and all of its Stunts now apply to that PC.
- Bull’s Grace: Tact is not in your dictionary. Whenever you attempt to be socially Careful or Clever, you are instead Forceful.
- Sea’s Claim: You have been marked to die by drowning, better avoid baths for a while. You face an additional Fair (+2) opposition to any physical actions you take while partially or wholly submerged as the water attempts to drag you down.
- Labyrinth of Thorns: Everywhere touched by this curse is covered in thorny vines. Every cursed zone has Barrier 2 and deals 1 unbockable physical stress on a failed movement action.
- Porno For Pyros: You are unnaturally weak to fire, and take an additional 1 stress from any source of fire or burning (physical stress from a magical fireball, mental stress from escaping a house fire, etc).
Variant: The Creeping Curse
Come up with an end goal for the curse, and work out how the curse progresses if nothing is done to stop it. Now, create a stress track with that many boxes. Each time the curse progresses, mark off a stress box to show it advancing and implement the next step. When the stress track is full the curse has claimed its victim. For added effect, make the cursed player manage the stress track without telling them what each step does beforehand. This should be great motivation.
Alternatively, have the steps of the curse take up their minor, moderate, and major consequence slots in turn as it progresses. This has the added effect of making the steps compellable, and meaning the character can’t afford to suffer as much stress overall. Below are two example curses, one from history and the other from children’s literature.
The Chicken Chicken Curse
- Minor: Speaks in clucks
- Moderate: Starts growing feathers
- Major: Begins laying eggs
Doom: Turns into a mindless chicken.
- Minor: Weakness to Silver
- Moderate: Bestial Urges
- Major: Full Moon trasnfomation into wolf beast
Doom: You kill someone close to you
As with all things fate related, use the approach that best suits your group and campaign, or cut my ideas up and mix them together into something new and original.
Today’s Lesson: Always think aloud around your superiors.