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I've been playing/DMing for some time and I'm running an old Planescape module I've updated for Pathfinder. This module contains the cursed item Vacuous Grimoire, which players have a chance of discovering. I'm struggling to understand how to communicate this item in game with my players.

Let's assume they find the item, and because I tell them this particular book is so interesting they want to read it, they will detect magic on it. If they beat the identify DC by 10 they identify the curse - fine. If they don't though, they just identify the book is magical and interesting - so interesting that I need to tell them they are compelled to read it every day. When they do, they potentially fail a will save and lose either 1 Int or 2 Wis. Do I tell them about this "permanent ability damage"? Do I just secretly adjust the DCs for that character until their intelligence/wisdom drops so low they die or cannot function any more? I am really not sure how to handle this and what information I will and will not communicate to them.

I suppose the underlying questions are: how does a character itself perceive permanent ability damage, and how does a DM handle/communicate the impact of those changes to a character?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Why is this tagged 3.5? \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Jan 11 '18 at 12:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I thought that since my question was more broadly related to the activity of roleplaying the changes and DMing in general it wasn't so specifically restricted to pathfinder, especially as it was originally an AD&D module. My apologies for misleading. \$\endgroup\$ – Prospero Jan 12 '18 at 0:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Prospero Tags are for describing the content of the question, not for what the question may be potentially applicable to (which could potentially be many different games). Since you're playing Pathfinder, we tag this as Pathfinder. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 12 '18 at 1:07
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Just tell them they're suffering ability drain.

Unless the module specifically calls for them to be unaware of the effects, you normally notify a player when their character suffers damage or drain. The first character flips through the book and goes "Whoa, wait. That's hurting my head. Ow. Don't read it, friends." Hopefully, they listen and that's that, unless they decide to keep the book and put it with some other books and trigger its "blending in" effect and end up picking it up again. Assuming they're not high enough level that restoration is trivial, that drain is going to be there for a long time anyway.

If your Vacuous Grimoire is different: The Pathfinder version of the Vacuous Grimoire is described as only "mildly interesting" and looks like a normal volume. The reason PCs pick it up and read it isn't a compulsion, it's because they swept the bookcase with detect magic and holy crap a magic book. It has a decent chance of hitting low level characters (and mid-level characters with poor Will saves) for Int, Wis, and Cha drain, but doesn't normally continue to do so, unless they cause it to blend in and pick it up and read it again.

If the module specifically calls it out as a compulsion to read the book every day, it's extra-important you inform the player[s] of their character's drastic mental changes. The player should roleplay the change in personality, and telling them about the mechanical changes is necessary so they know to do so. Charisma drain is probably easiest to work into description - the character becomes irritable and irritating to be around, snapping at other party members and generally being a pain anytime their nose isn't buried in the book. Wisdom can be represented by becoming oblivious and making snap decisions - not noticing basic details of their surroundings, reacting emotionally instead of calmly or rationally. Intelligence can be hard to roleplay, but describing a bookish character as no longer caring about other books and not wanting to solve problems, and maybe simplifying their vocabulary can work.

If the module says to keep the attribute changes secret from the players, that's a whole other issue. I guess make their Will saves in secret, and make a note for yourself to adjust all their rolls if they lose a modifier point, and hope they don't lose a modifier from Intelligence since it requires them to lose skill points, which is hard to hide from the player - which points do you take off? Since the book affects all three casting stats, there's also a chance of losing spells per day or even usable levels of spells, which is going to make things obvious quickly.

If the module calls for both the attribute drain to be secret and a compulsion to keep reading the book every day... well, that PC is probably soon to be an NPC. They're going to lose a point of Will save every time the Wisdom save fails, and be more likely to fail it again the next day. Any casting ability they had will diminish and then vanish. Include descriptions for the player of how they scream at their teammates, trip over obvious obstacles (maybe because their nose is buried in a book?), and can't remember the contents of any of the books they've read - not even the one they just read again that morning. Hopefully they or a party member will figure it out before an ability hits zero and takes the character out of action permanently (or at least, until a greater restoration can be had, which is a higher-level spell than even raise dead - that's right, the character would be better off dying than re-reading that book every day).

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So perhaps I have over-complicated things by referring back to what I believe is the AD&D description of the grimoire, which states the drain occurs every time the book is read, 'which you feel compelled to do once per day as long as you see it.' This is maybe best resolved by keeping it simple, dropping the compulsion element and simply telling the involved player as you have suggested. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – Prospero Jan 12 '18 at 0:22
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I would tell the player that they feel uneasy or something of that sort. As they continue to campaign they (hopefully) realise that there is an issue with their character and find a way to reverse the curse. At the point that they realise that they're cursed and they specifically ask, then yes tell them that they're cursed and what the curse is doing to negatively effect them. Then, make sure that there IS a way to reverse the curse somewhere in the world that they're in.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good answers stand out by not just saying what to do, but also why. Currently this says “I would do X” but doesn't say why that's the right way to handle it. Could you edit to give more reason for why this is the right answer, not just one person's idea? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 9 '18 at 15:58
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The insidious quality of damage to the mental faculties is that the damaged one truly cannot reliably detect that they're failing, even when the failure has gone so far they can barely take care of themselves. We see this in the real world, in some degenerative brain disorders.

The clue to the character would be and increasing rate of failure on mental based rolls. Can't remember the formula for a potion they've made dozens of times, for instance, or can't recall which way they need to turn in a dungeon they're revisiting after only a few weeks. Eventually, a wizard would lose the ability to cast spells entirely (or the same could happen to a cleric losing Wisdom) -- but by then, it may be too late.

Loss of Int to this source ought to be self-limiting, to some extent -- at Int 3 or so, they'll lose the ability to read. The same may not be true for Wisdom.

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