Long term curses in play

In the trad game The Dark Eye, there is a character class Witcher. They are known for resembling European witches and their focus is on curses. In play, that often works not really well. If the Witch curses someone to lose hair slowly in the next weeks or will bring bad luck to all loved ones etc. - how often will there be a place in play where we see that? Especially in traditional adventurer campaigns.

How would you make that more useful from a game design perspective?

What mechanics could make Witch curses better work? What narrative tricks would you suggest?

If no player brings a Witch to the table, there’s no problem really. And if one does, it’s a sign they want to explore long term in their adventures, right ? Wouldn’t the changes you seek make poison and witchcraft mere colour (poison : decide who dies ; remedy : heal one ally) ? In which case, you need to tell what function you want the class to have (in the previous examples : a Gunlugger / Angel mix).

But no more questionning the question. You ask for answers :

To me, this Witcher could be : a mix between a midwife (real life healing) and a socio-religious figure (impress the gullible, talk things out, etc.) The less subtle route : magic power, drawing players like flies to sugar. Or maybe have both as evolution paths under the same class : so co-players don’t know if the powers are real or not (mimicking the social status of witches). I suppose it’s a sort of “secrecy” one can play with at a traditional table.

Some more views about witches you can highlight : social construct (Salem’s, kids on bikes fear the old hag), modern feminist figures (the broom, the fire, kissing ass, reversing the stigma), inhuman in nature (Roald Dahl, Narnia’s), plain magicians (remote lab, Sabbath, toads), etc.

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Thank you, @DeReel, for your insights!

It is indeed making long-term play and larger-time-spanning arcs but still focused on one location more relevant.

Unfortunately, I often see players accidentally choosing such options, getting excited about the atmospheric element in it, relating to other media where it works well.

Also, as is the case with the Dark Eye witches, the rest of the game is clearly not steered to time-spanning campaigns but ordinary adventure stuff.

I wonder what one could still do with game mechanics and narrative tricks to make these long-term curses more play relevant - in such a context.

One example coming to my mind:
provide a structure in which the player can flash forward: Let them describe what the cursed location / person is looking like / doing a week after meeting the Witch. If the adventurer group is very likely not seeing them ever again, that could be a great way to make curses more effective.

There is a french trad game that’s pretty much “medieval sliders”, with characters hoping from dimensional kingdom to dimensional kingdom. And despite of that, many adventures are very much community centered. It works as you say : the characters stay in the community for at least a week, sometimes months. So, the time ellipses are just different. That often means having to repair a boat, waiting for a storm season to pass, living like kings, etc. Ulysses’ like episodes. Very sword and sorcery. Come to think of it, there’s another french game with a caravan that’s on the same episodic structure, and community centered. Only there’s the “inside” community and the “outside” one, so players can play on both short and long term. But you don’t want the Witch to poison the party.

It can also be done this way : adventurers adventure alright, but from time to time, you reincorporate a village or a NPC, as you would in DitV. As a bonus, you’ve got a world where PCs begin “free from all constraints”, but see more and more benefits to a regulated behaviour. They “civilize” à la Enkidu.

Note that these are narrative solutions, not character ones. And they clearly leave out dungeoneering and exploration. In these cases, maybe the witch controls flora and fauna ? The problem is always the same : if you have a Polar Ranger and most of the play is in the desert, or if all monsters are non-sentient, you can fold your charm person and your fast talk skill. It’s not a character problem, it’s a narrative problem to me. The game of “guess your GM’s adventure” I really hate.

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I feel like the effect of curses is often one of psychological terrorism - it’s almost worse to know that you have been cursed, and dread the outcome, than it is to suffer the effects of the curse itself.

I’d play up the fear, the dread, the terror. Have people exaggerate their fear, spread rumours, tell stories about what will happen. Play up the reactions of the people cursed as well as the people around them. Someone who is cursed might not die for many years, but perhaps their fellow villagers start to shun them immediately. Everyone turns their backs and never speaks to the person again.

Attach, to each curse, some “early signs”, which take place almost immediately, and tell you that the thing has worked. A small, conspicuous mark or sign of some sort - a white lock of hair, a tooth falls out, etc.

Otherwise, a small flash-forward, vision, or even simple narration could be enough. “You leave him there, standing in the clearing, knowing that over the next three years his hair will fall out, his teeth will yellow and rot, and that the entire village will never speak to him or trade with him again - knowing that his life, as he knew it, is destroyed.”


Wow, that is pretty dark, @Paul_T. I love it.

The “early signs” are especially appealing to me. Including the social abandonment.


I’d think that in a campaign around a faction based sandbox curses might work decently. You don’t curse random foot soldiers (or maybe you do - sneaking into the town barracks to curse the cook pot so the guard is always hungry could be the start of a beautiful scheme), but curses directed at faction leaders might work.

For a classic game it’s not going to fulfill the traditional combat or puzzle solving purpose of spells - no cursing open a magically locked door or winning the a fight because you cursed everyone. If you were running a classic game it seems like the warlock or balewerker would need to have a few more utility abilities. (add some other skills or make them tolerable combatants - no an all in glass cannon fire shooting Wizard). It seems like the folk magic/less high magic way of looking at magic is usable though - just branch out from curses.

Wards – protective magic that drives off or shields locations or people - rituals, but maybe sometimes quicker things, reskins of spells like Sanctuary, Protection from Evil or Shield.
Augery – Ritual magic to learn useful things. A Downtime activity (and I’d generally like the ritual caster to 1 ritual between sessions)
Charms – The protective kind, an amulet or something prepared to protect someone form something specific: fire, swords, black cats, or a specific person - the more limited the more powerful.
Curses – Prep them before hand, a cast it on anyone instantly combat sort of spell feels wrong, but a spell where you attach some horrible effect (say instant aging by 50 years) to a specific name could be powerful but properly limited in a good faction based game, or even one with a robust rumor structure. Find out the name of the bandit leader, and when you meet them, a case of suppurating boils should make them less flighty real quick.

The keys here are: Having multi session games, having a functional downtime system, having factions with importance in the setting.

For a One Shot, I might just hand some narrative control to the balewerker (prepare one curse for the game, spring it on whoever, and depending on how well you can tell the GM you prepared it the better it works).


Thank you so much @Gus.L for the suggestions and your analysis. The keys seem essential to me - and vice versa: if it is not possible to game with functional downtime, multi-sessions and factions with importance, it might also just not work in the long-run, no matter how well mechanics are crafted or narratively connected.

I think it could work if treated more like a social spell. Like, you want to not only intimidate but terrorize somebody into doing something? You put a curse on them and the more convincing the curse, the faster the effects will show. There’s a chance it will misfire, as the target may have a hidden condition that could make the curse backfire or fail, like a previously existent curse, something on their bloodline, an amulet, etc. I’d make it into a save roll and come up later with the explanations on how it works or doesn’t. It’s the same if the curse is just for revenge against that character. The only requisite is that the Witcher should feel strong hate towards the target for some reason. And probably make it a one per day ability.