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My players met Fiachra, cursed to be a raven unless she brings the Scepter of McGuffin to Ebil Wissard III (grand son of the legendary Ebil Wissard).

Of course, the Cleric in the group casts the remove curse spell, and problem solved. No need to go on a long perilous quest to through the Fire Swamp, over the Cliffs of Insanity, and down into the Pit of Despair. Nope, no point at all. Weeks worth of planning and preparation down the tubes. Tonight's session they spent the rest of the time helping Fiachra repaint her castle and then everyone watched the paint dry (ok, I admit it was one of my more interesting sessions).

So what is a frustrated DM supposed to do? Obviously I can't have any more plot hooks that depend on a curse, or can I? Is it reasonable to nerf remove curse and say, "Well, this curse was done by a level 42 wizard, so you need to be level 42 to break it"? How can I best handle this as DM?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It sounded like a geass but geass themselves are vulnerable to Remove Curse. Bummer. \$\endgroup\$ – Mindwin Jan 20 at 12:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is this something that really happened in your game? Are you asking how to handle this after the event? (I'm assuming the answer is no to both...) \$\endgroup\$ – user56480 Jan 21 at 9:20

11 Answers 11

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Your "Curse" is not mechanically a curse

You can impose conditions that would be a curse in a fairy tale, but are not mechanically curses.

Remove Curse is a 3rd level spell. It is meant to remove conditions such as those imposed by the Bestow Curse or Geas or to remove the atunement from a cursed item so that the item can be disposed of.

Remove curse will not remove a the effects of a True Polymorph or a Flesh to Stone for instance. Your custom "curse" with its escape clause is obviously into homebrew territory, but not only are you justified in declaring that it is beyond Remove Curse, the players should not be surprised. Your custom spell is more akin to True Polymorph than it is to Bestow Curse. I have used custom conditions that must be resolved by a MacGuffin frequently, and my players are never surprised when it takes far more than a low level remove curse or dispel magic to break it.

To avoid misleading players, especially those that invest heavily into RAW, you may want to hint strongly that remove curse won't work ahead of time. Ideally, you would avoid the word curse, but since this fits perfectly within "fairy tale curses" that might be hard. Instead, I might have the NPCs say things like it is a "special kind of curse" or "like a curse". You could even have a local cleric say they have already tried remove curse, or at least emphasize the "only" way to break the curse.

Have backup plans and be adaptable

In your particular scenario, you are fully justified in declaring that the mechanical ability just won't do it and any reasonable player should understand that. Sometimes that won't be the case. Sometimes the players will really find some way to short-circuit your plan that its hard to say no to without cheating your players.

That is where you remember that you know and control things they don't. Among other things, remember that MacGuffins are largely fungible. So, they just found a way to avoid something you put a lot of work into planning. You might need to back off for a little bit and let them enjoy that victory, but then some other MacGuffin winds up being in the place that you put so much work into planning and they still have to go, just for a slightly different reason.

In your particular case, if the curse is broken perhaps the princess herself gets carried off to the well guarded location you planned out.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think you meant "mechanically" and not "literally" \$\endgroup\$ – Nullman Jan 20 at 13:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Nullman You are correct. \$\endgroup\$ – TimothyAWiseman Jan 20 at 17:00
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You don't have to give up on these classic trope scenarios just because the RAW for the Remove Curse spell says:

At your touch, all curses affecting one creature or object end.

In fact, looking across the various rule books you'll be hard pressed to find any "curse" that can cause the effect you described. A Bestow Curse spell can't turn someone into a raven until they perform a specific feat. You'd need a some far more powerful like a Wish spell, or a True Polymorph plus other effects to do this. So, just because the afflicted, or the local townspeople, or others in the game world without extensive knowledge in Arcana says she's "cursed" doesn't mean the effect automatically falls under the game mechanical purview of the Remove Curse spell.

And from a game balance perspective, this clearly isn't RAI. For example, Fomorian giants, mummies, and medusas are all described as the product of curses. As a DM, I wouldn't allow my players to defeat a CR 15 mummy lord with a simple level 3 spell.

And since there aren't specific game rules to follow for such effects, as the DM you'll need to establish the lore, mechanics, and presentation of such "curses" for your own campaign world, which establishes the quest required to remove the effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ There's a paragraph in the MM (p. 227) specifically dedicated to "Ending a Mummy's Curse" that I would argue implies the opposite. \$\endgroup\$ – Zimul8r Jan 20 at 13:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ For a little unsolicited advice, you may also be able to salvage your hard work. Explain the situation to your players, that you believe that the Remove Curse shouldn't have worked after all. In-game, "As your party is about to leave the castle, Fiachra suddenly lets out a scream that gradually sounds more and more like the call of a raven. Before your eyes, she morphs back into the form you believed to be cured. The Remove Curse spell seems to have simply repressed the magic keeping her in her bird-like state." \$\endgroup\$ – TheLittlePeace Jan 20 at 14:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheLittlePeace Then of course the players will (reasonably) believe that any time they need her to be temporarily human, they can cast Remove Curse again and get a few hours of humanity \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Jan 20 at 17:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ This answer is the root of it: Just because people in-world refer to it as "a curse" doesn't mean that it strictly belongs to that sphere of magic that the game mechanics refer to as "a curse" \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Jan 20 at 17:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @StephenR I can't imagine the sensation of being turned into a bird and back repeatedly is a pleasant experience (hence the bird scream), and it's still a third level spell, which depending on the level of the party could be pretty high. I think that it could still be an interesting story element. But we're beginning to get off topic - 'twas just a suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ – TheLittlePeace Jan 20 at 19:13
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Plot hooks are for players ...

... because characters aren't real.

Your plot hooks need to provide a compelling reason for your players to want to engage with them. With some groups, this can be as simple as "The adventure is this way". If you are playing in a more open-world/sandbox type of way then you provide various hooks with enough prep behind each one for one session, and then flesh out the one they choose.

If you've hooked the players, characters just need a pretext; not a reason.

While he cares more about character motivations than I, a similar point is made by the Angry GM.

Don't prep plots

I can't say it better:

If you’re GMing a roleplaying game, you should never prep a plot.

And the problem with trying to prep a plot for an RPG is that you’re attempting to pre-determine events that have not yet happened. Your gaming session is not a story — it is a happening. It is something about which stories can be told, but in the genesis of the moment it is not a tale being told. It is a fact that is transpiring.

A plot is a sequence of events: A happens, then B happens, then C happens. (In more complicated forms, the sequence of events might fork like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but the principle remains the same.)

A situation, on the other hand, is merely a set of circumstances. The events that happen as a result of that situation will depend on the actions the PCs take.

Players in Role Playing Games can break plots; they can't break situations.

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By RaW, a curse can require a specific caster level to be broken.

In the Lost Laboratory of Kwalish adventure, a PC can be cursed, and

This curse can be removed only by a remove curse spell cast by an 18th-level spellcaster, by defeating Kwalish and reversing the process using his machines, or by completing a separate task for the inventor.

Following the example of published official adventures, your PCs may need a specific level to be able to break the curse. It is, otherwise, too powerful.

I wouldn't recommend level 42, though :P

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This is a part of how DnD works: as the characters gain spells and magic items in their tool set, planned plot lines will change. New appropriate ones pop up, old ones become obsolete. This is referenced in the Basic Rules:

In the first tier (levels 1–4), characters are effectively apprentice adventurers. ... The threats they face are relatively minor, usually posing a danger to local farmsteads or villages.

In the second tier (levels 5–10), characters come into their own. ... These characters have become important, facing dangers that threaten cities and kingdoms.

...

Read the full section for free on DnD Beyond.

Essentially, as Remove Curse is a 3rd level spell, available for characters of 5th level and beyond, it renders plot lines hinging on individuals fighting curses obsolete, similarly to how 5th level combat power renders the start-of-campaign miniquests about rats in the cellar obsolete. It's no longer a challenge.

What to do about this?

The simple answer of course would be not to found adventures on an objective the players have the means to easily bypass, but given the large amount of spells and other means available to your players, I understand it's not really foolproof unless one is really devoted to preventing such bypasses. Knowing every option available should not be a prerequisite for being a GM.

An alternative is always having a backup plan, so that if your players have the means to bypass a planned adventure, you have another one in storage. If you're good with improvisation, you can get by with as little as the next adventure hook, eg. something Fiachra wants to do after the curse is undone.

Depending on what your players actually want, though, you could simply discuss with them if they're ok with not using adventure bypasses. Many players prefer well-prepared content over "watching paint dry" so they might approve of the "level 42 wizard" explanation or similar tricks. Ask your players what they think works the best for them.

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Maybe the curse is not on the person but on some item. Think Harry potter's Horcruxes.

I did this once based on an old Sindbad movie, the story of his encounter with El-Kerim. In my story, instead of making them invulnerable, the cursed NPC's heart was trapped elsewhere and their heart had been magically replaced by that of -the animal they were turned to- in your case, she would have had the heart of a raven, which would kill her if turned back to her form without access to her real heart.

So while remove curse could be cast, the ingredients needed to undo that specific curse would include the actual heart of the affected NPC.

(Sindbad story - in short: the evil El-Kerim had his vulnerable heart removed and kept safe in a distant bell tower, guarded by magic. The main adventure is to reach the tower containing the evil heart. Taking the heart from its protective magic with a jolt gives El-Kerim a heart attack. When it is destroyed, the heart explodes).

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome! While the idea is nice in itself, it would improve this answer if it focused more on practical application than presenting an example. Ie. how can OP (or someone else) create a similar quest? Why does it work to solve the problem? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Jan 19 at 16:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. Your answer would be improved by clarifying your recommended solution, as Szega says; the experience you describe would be a good way to support that recommendation, if you can explain how that solution addresses OP's problem. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jan 19 at 23:46
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Some curses are far too powerful to be broken by a mere 3rd level spell - namely, DM plot hook curses.

Perhaps the Remove Curse merely suppressed the effects for a short time. Or, perhaps the being that did the cursing feels that it has been broken, and promptly kidnaps the Princess... taking her across eel infested waters to the border of Guilder - and ONLY the Scepter of McGuffin will free her.

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House Rules are your Friends

Another tack you can employ is to have your own house rules on curses. Simply put, each specific curse is inflicted by its own spell and requires a specific counter-spell to remove it; there is no panacea remove curse. You of course have to chart out the different curses (and you can assign them differing spell levels, so that if you allow PCs to use them, they do not have access to the whole set at once). I also recommend that each curse's counter-spell be one level higher than the curse (because it is generally easier to make something worse off than it is to make it better).

As with all house rules, you take the time during game session zero to inform the players of this.

The rarer and higher-level curses now become the bases for adventures. The duke's daughter suffers from a curse that gives her the mind of an alligator; the duke's sage has made it known that the creator of the curse--and therefore, the one most likely to know about any counter-curse, if any--is a wizard residing in the town of Blatherskag; the players make the trek to Blatherskag, finding that the town has been sacked by orcs, and so on.

The alternative is to hire a wizard of the appropriate level to research the counter-curse. However, this area of research is particularly fraught with danger, and so it requires an even higher level of magic-user to successfully research it, with the attendant difficulties in locating and persuading the competent researcher.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is no "house rule" as much as "rule 0" - the DM's interpretation of the rules is how they work. If the DM says that Remove Curse doesn't work on this curse, then it doesn't. \$\endgroup\$ – VLAZ Jan 20 at 11:48
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Dale M is right about not preparing plots, but situations. Why was Fiachra cursed? Was this about money? Personal revenge? Politics? Egotism? Holy war? An antisocial personality disorder? A big show of personal power? A matter of love?

  • If Ebil Wissard III was expecting the scepter as ransom, then obviously he hasn't gotten what he wants. He can continue to persecute Fiachra and/or the party, using other spells, favors from powerful warlords, etc., to continue to try to get what he wants. Fiachra just happened to be an easy victim - she was never really his true target, only a means to an end.
  • If your Big Bad (not necessarily Ebil Wissard III) has it out for Fiachra specifically (ex-lover who left him, maybe), then obviously he's not been dealt with just because the curse was lifted - what else is he trying? Maybe he's going to try to just up and kidnap her and lock her away in a dungeon somewhere - now the party needs different spells or skills to defend and/or rescue her.
  • If the Big Bad just needed a raven for some reason, then they can start cursing the countryside, sparking a war of attrition.
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There's a lot of great answers here that hinge on the idea that your planned for this before Fiachra stopped being a Raven, or for your next hook. I read your question as how to repair this hook. If I'm wrong, than go with the other advice on how to protect your next one. If I'm right, then how do you get the rest of that story back on track?

At the risk of building a railroad station, turn her back into a Raven. Every night at midnight or some other condition on the original action, then up the slot required to undo it each time. Eventually it is easier to do the quest than to level to the next slot. Or each transformation costs her something she can't easily recover (Hit Die loss, Ability Score drain, etc) and she'll die after # of Remove Curses.

DISCLAIMER: I wouldn't do this, I'd take the months of hard work and plug it into a new story line. Maybe the Wizard arrives and offers some other reward that the Party can't get by casting Remove Curse because they proved themselves so capable in helping her (I've used that one more times than I remember). I'm just trying to answer your question the way I inferred it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure why you'd recommend a solution that you yourself wouldn't do. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jan 20 at 15:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ I would say that I recommend the 2nd solution because it rewards the player's agency. But I offered the 1st because it seemed more what he was asking for (could be my error) & I was trying to help him on his own terms. \$\endgroup\$ – Gramor Fale Jan 20 at 20:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like the Swan Princess :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Wyrmwood Jan 21 at 2:20
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Change the narrative

The players cast Remove Curse on Fiachra and she turns back into a human. That night (or some short time later while they're sleeping) she steals the scepter (and maybe a favorite item from one of the players). Turns out she works for the evil wizard and was just trying to get the scepter for him. Now the players have a great motivation to go on the quest (she stole their stuff / revenge). Once she leaves the glamour on the castle fades and it becomes obvious it's old and ruined, but maybe the party can find some clues to help them on their quest.

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