Monday, July 24, 2017

Dungeons and Dragons, "Cursed Items"

Standard Introduction
            I have been writing about Dungeons and Dragons semi-regularly this year and in the course of writing those I found a 30-day blog challenge.  As I have done those a couple times before it seemed remiss not to jump on this one.
            If you want here is a link to my 30-day challenge on Disney Movies, here is a link to my 30-day challenge on Video Games, and here is a comically out of date 30-day challenge on Movies (it is old and the writing is rubbish).
While I am sure this thing would be totes evil in any story written about it,
It is for sale on Etsy at time of writing.
Day 24- Cursed Items
            Cursed items are a classic arc type in fantasy literature.  One of the earliest fantasy stories, “Ring of Gyges” by Plato is the story of a magical ring which granted the power to become invisible.  The story explored whether an intelligent person would remain moral when no longer afraid of being caught doing immoral things.
            You could argue, and I do “Gygas” has more in common with what we would consider science fiction, with how it treats the fallout of the ring as a technology to be utilized for good or ill, but that is not too important for the purposes of this discussion.
            Let’s ignore the sci-fi aspect, let’s ignore the fact that Plato invented the One Ring of Power and I am uncertain if Tolkien was directly referencing or inspired by this story.  Let’s also ignore that “Gyges” sounds too much like “Gygax”.  Instead we’ll focus on the fact that this magical item does not have a curse built into its rules, but is cursed in a more thought provoking way.  That it corrupts simply by being super powerful.
            The magical technology of “Gyges” is not being super common and thus it is a source of ethical conundrums.  The desire to transgress when given the ability to do so almost demands its wearer use it for such things.  Curses in mythology, generally speaking are not often all that literal, and more often function in the vein of this ring.
            Aside from the Ring, most cursed items in myth are more like the Hope Diamond, vague misfortune or great plight befalling those who have the item, but none of that plight directly relates to having it.  Readers should understand all of these stories for what they are, morality tales.
"It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing."
-Boromir, on the topic of the One Ring

Moral Curses
            Having a powerful magic item or weapon necessitates its use.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it, so to speak.  The idea of a sword that cuts thru armor like cutting thru cloth, or a dagger that never misses its mark when thrown means that the wielders of such weapons will not feel the need to seek a more difficult peace when they could have an easy victory in battle.  They will become merciless, they will become violent, and over time that behavior will warp and consume them.  When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all you have is a sword, everything looks stab-able.
            When you have power, every verbal argument turns into a duel, and when people realize they can’t win the duel, every disagreement gets pushed aside or hidden and allowed to boil into something more dangerous.  The holder of the Vorpal Sword or the True Strike Dagger will soon have to check their food for poison because they are now only vulnerable in states of rest.  And as paranoia consumes them, the holder of the sword or dagger begins to turn on all those they once trusted, killing their friends, their family, and ultimately sitting alone atop a throne of blood.
            The best curses in fantasy are also the best metaphors.  Let’s look at two examples, one is super well known and the other is classic but not nearly as in the popular consciousness.
Here is an interesting concept,
even though this prop is kind of underwhelming looking,
the connotations of it make it cool looking.

The Iron Throne (aka, the super popular one)
            In “Game of Thrones” the Iron Throne is a massive chair that serves as the symbolic seat of power for the king of Westeros.  It was created by melting down hundreds of swords into a hard place to put one’s ass, and due to a lack of proper buffing/smoothing the damn thing has metal burrs all over it.  It was created by the first king of Westeros and serves to illustrate the role of the king, uncomfortably sitting on top of the largest number of military arms that can be cobbled together as a single unit.  You know, like an army.
            The Iron Throne is a symbol of conquest, they are after all the weapons of the defeated.  It is also a symbol of rulership, only by sitting on powers that are uncomfortable (and often cut you if you are careless) can you call yourself king.  This point is often illustrated by unworthy rulers like Joffrey or the Mad King, as they cut themselves on the armrests, or when Eddard Stark sits on the chair briefly to pass judgment on Gregor Clegane’s butchery and notes his discomfort sitting in the place of power.
            Different would-be kings mention putting cushions on the Throne, illustrating how they miss the point.  In the TV adaptation, Littlefinger and Varys (the two most devious people on the continent) mention how the modest sized throne (it was made smaller for the show) doesn’t contain nearly as many swords as is often claimed… Subtle, it is almost like the show keeps reminding the audience of how the pursuit of power has forced everyone to overextend and bluff their way into situations they can’t handle.
            The Iron Throne isn’t literally cursed, aside from one shout of “The Throne Rejects Him” when Joffrey cuts himself, nobody really believes that.  But the Throne does hold symbolic weight that could be interpreted as a curse.  It is a stand in for all the trials and tribulations of rulership.  Why would anyone want to sit on such an uncomfortable chair?
Aside from its general radness.

Stormbringer, the Black Sword (aka, “Sorry?  What?  I don’t know that one.”)
            This is the more obscure but is also the more blatant example of a curse.  Stormbringer is a sword of black metal with deep runes carved into its blade and is wielded by Elric, the King of Melnibone (please ignore that Elric is an anagram of “relic”, I am not sure that is even symbolic).
            Stormbringer grants strength and power to its wielder and can cut thru any armor not protected by magic.  Beyond that, even the slightest wound to an opponent steals that victim’s soul because the sword is actually the earthly manifestation of a demon named Shaitan… Which definitely sounds a bit like “Satan”.  A real big bit.
            Elric is a physically weak person and the strength and power the blade gives him is all that keeps him from losing his throne to members of his own family that are far crueler than him.  But that is the rub, constantly fighting to keep his throne leaves Elric all alone and in the end, he too is consumed by the blade.

Elric is an albino, which is apparently a dire fate in his culture.
He is perhaps the best example of the tortured-loner-badass in fantasy before Drizzt Do'Urden showed up.

            It is comically on the nose to have a cursed sword this transparently evil (and there are lots of these swords in the series, all demons operating as weapons).  A sword, a weapon of war that all at once is the classic symbol of nobility (Excalibur), classism (because you need a lot of leisurely free time to practice), and in many cases virility, is made into a literal devil.  It is almost like the actual villainy is a toxically masculine culture that forces its rulers to value strength just to hold onto power instead of valuing mercy and compromise.
            For heaven’s sake, the weapon grants strength but steals souls, how is that not considered preachy?  I guess sometimes you need to be really on the nose with symbolism when you want to tell a story about how power corrupts.
            Being not-subtle has its place.  Say what you will about “Game of Thrones” being excellent (it is), but there are still people in the real world arguing about who should be king at the end of the story; guys, the correct answer is, “Kings are bad because their power is derived not from the will of the people but from strength of arms derived mostly from manipulation and bullshit.”  What the world of Westeros needs are a fantasy Oliver Cromwell and a fantasy Robespierre to show up and start moving things toward a Democratic-Republic.

My Favorite Cursed Item in DnD
             “The item is intelligent” and “it doesn’t really like the fact that you own it and thus will not do what you say all the time.”  No specific item in question, just items with this drawback.
            Much like Stormbringer this does push the players toward certain tactics if they want to be able to use a potent item, but they can just as easily not compromise their values by simply not utilizing the item.  I feel that is a rather fair arrangement and allows for roleplaying while at the same time presenting a mechanical incentive to character “growth”.
There is also magic "items" like Golems who inevitably turn on their creators.

Coming Tomorrow
            Tomorrow I am going to talk about my favorite Magic Item.  It is goofy.


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