This question came up during a round of Lamentations of the Flame Princess. Depending on the system this kind of question may already be answered in the rules. But I figure it's more of a general question that applies to a lot of RPGs where it is not clearly indicated in the rules.

Let me start by giving you a concrete example:

Say an adventurer finds an item which, once he touches it without having it blessed first, puts a curse on him. From now on he has to roll two d20 instead of just one and picking the worse result on a combat roll.

The mechanic is clear, but
how would one communicate this to the PC?

It seems boring to just announce the mechanic. Obviously I have to tell him at some point that two d20 are in order. But it would probably make sense to preface that with some 'in-world' talk.

I was thinking I could say something like the following when the next combat occurs: "You feel like some unseen force is stifling you...". In this case he would (probably) not know what is happening and why and that would likely be frustrating for the player. But IMO it would make the most sense.

Alternatively, I could say something once he touches the item: "Taking the item you feel that the weight of your [weapon] grows heavier...", and then continue with the above line on the next encounter. But maybe that gives too much away.

Any suggestion on how to best handle such a case?

  • \$\begingroup\$ It's a bit hard to tell what exactly your question is. Is it "How do I make this item cursed, without downright telling them 'you picked up a cursed item'?"? Is it "how do I explain this curse in terms of flavour text?" \$\endgroup\$
    – Theik
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 8:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ When you consider the mechanics behind it: The player picks up the item. Then they keep running around. Then an encounter happens and the person who picked the item up attacks and I tell him he has to roll two d20. I guess your first question "How do I make this item cursed, without downright telling them" kind of hits the nail. How much/what/how can I communicate to the player. (edit: sorry, Eng not my main language. Hope I made myself clear enough) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 8:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ Added to main post. Thank you for the link to the chat. I shall check it out when I'm at home. edit: I will keep that in mind, Purple Monkey, ty! \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 9:31

3 Answers 3


With most tabletop RPGs there is going to be a certain level of disconnect between the mechanics of a mysterious effect and its, well, mysteriousness. Here are a few ways to handle this kind of situation sorted from most player knowledge to least.

  1. Describe the effect, explain the rules

This is probably the simplest option and the one I would recommend if you as DM feel that your plate is already pretty full. Start off with the flavor you want (feeling of unluck, feeling lethargic, things aren't where they should be, ...etc) and then describe to the player what mechanical effect this will have. This takes the burden of managing the curse off of you as DM and gives it to the player. The player, with the description given first, can then play up the effect based on what you describe and the results of future rolls. While it sounds like this would ruin the roleplay, players can frequently have fun describing how the curse affects them if they know what form it takes, even if they fully understand the mechanics out of character.

  1. Describe the effect, wait to explain rules

This is a slight varient of the above. Just like before, start with the roleplay description of the effect but don't tell them immediately what it did. Instead, wait until they first trigger the curse (in this case on their first combat roll afterward, or if you want to be particularly devious, on their first successful one). This means that you need to keep track of when the first trigger actually happens, but can add a fun sense of dread and unknowing to new curses found by the party as they don't know exactly what form they'll take until they strike and never know if there is another aspect waiting to bite then they haven't found yet

  1. Describe the effect, hide the rules

I wouldn't recommend this for any effect where it will come up frequently or if discovering what the curse does isn't important but another example is to only give the roleplay description of what is happening. When it comes time to handle the mechanics of the curse, do it discreetly behind a screen or the like and then describe what happens if appropriate. In the case of the roll two take the lowest, you could wait until they succeed and then roll quietly out of sight. If the roll you did misses then you can take the opportunity to tell them that they in fact miss and feel the effects of the curse taking hold. Most players will probably be able to work out roughly what is going on if the pattern is obvious enough but this maximizes uncertainty despite the relatively straight forward mechanic. The major downside is that this adds a lot of extra stuff for the DM to keep track of on top of everything else so like previously mentioned I would caution against it without a good (and short) reason for doing so.

With all of the above listed methods you can add to the mysteriousness just by having some factors that are less obvious that effect the curse. Methods 2 and 3 are a lot more difficult to figure out if it only triggers on an attack immediately after one that did damage, though again these sorts of triggers add to the already taxing job of DMing, so use sparingly. Likewise should you decide to forstall the knowledge of the curse entirely until it triggers for the first time, you can easily wait to describe the effect similarly to method 2, just make it clear that there is a specific and potentially knowable thing that is happening and not just strange DM whims.

In the end a lot just comes down to description and a touch of flair. When a miss happens due to the curse, if the player doesn't say anything, drop a quick line about how the curse or mysterious effect caused their sure hit to fumble or their carefully aimed strike to go awry. With even just a few words, you can turn the most straight forward of mechanical exchanges into an interesting narrative flow that stays within the game world.

  • \$\begingroup\$ What a great answer. Im rather new to the GM business and I feel option 1 would be the wisest choice for now. But the way you described option 2 makes me want to do it that way. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 9:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ In older games where the GMing load is deliberately reduced by various techniques, #3 is the default for all effects that are mysterious to the PC, including positive ones. (Arguably, the techniques to reduce GM load exist in order to free them up to handle these things easily.) When you can, #3 is extremely effective in my experience. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ I am a very big fan of #2. My players picked up a Chaos Orb (homebrew) which was basically a Rod of Wonder except with 10,000 possible effects. One of the characters ended up being invincible against enemies she couldn't see, which got them through the next floor of the dungeon quite handily, seeing as it was full of Phantom Fungi. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 17:46

It depends on the playstyle (as decided by the GM, and/or agreed on by the players), as there are trade-offs depending on how much one prefers things such as:

  • Players liking to roll dice for their own actions.
  • How much game jargon is desired in the game narrative. (Some players enjoy talking about and playing with the numbers and turns and game terms during play. Others prefer to have as much of the talk as possible be about the game situation.)
  • How much information the GM should keep from the players, that their characters would not know.

Personally, I tend to let players roll dice for their PC's actions, since many players enjoy that. However, I prefer to have as much of the game be descriptive of the situation rather than in game mechanics, where practical. So I often translate game mechanics into natural language descriptions, and I accept and encourage natural-language moves from players even during detailed tactical combat, which allows players who don't know anything about the game system I'm using to play. (I've had a pre-teen take a random guard character for a session and take out the main bad guy in one session in head-on combat, without him needing any RPG experience.) As for concealed information, I do my best to keep the players from being able to learn what is going on from out-of-character game mechanics.

So in the specific example you gave, what I would do using my preferred style, would be to let the player roll his one die as usual, and then roll the other curse die myself behind a screen. I often roll dice in response to player actions, for actual reasons or just to keep players guessing about what might be going on. If the result is as the cursed player would expect from his die roll, everything goes as planned. If the curse has turned a success into a failure, however, then I'll describe what happens based on how I imagine the curse to work. Some curses might have obvious effects, such as "You try to swing the sword as usual, but as you do, a feeling of doom washes over you and your aim is spoiled"; or maybe the curse may seem like something else is going on, so I might say "You were sure you were going to hit, but he seemed to move uncannily out of the way". If I really wanted it to be hard to tell whether someone was cursed or not, I might even have started rolling extra dice and describing combat outcomes in interesting ways long before anyone got cursed.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1, Lunin's answer is good, but this makes it more clear that the DM's choice should depend, at least in part, upon the preferred style of the players. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 19:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Another great comment. Gives me a lot to think about. To be honest, I might just talk to my group tomorrow and get their opinion on the matter. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 22:34

You could for example how the character suddenly is plagued by a looming dread, his thoughts betraying him/her in that doubts come up much more frequently, in effect he/she starts to second guess themselves thus the two rolls and because second guessing is time consuming he/she always gets the worst of the rolls.

As a aside, explaining game mechanics (which exist to make the game fun and balanced) in game lore is one of my favourites parts of the hobby, in one system which let you mix race and class freely I made a Daemon (race) Daemonhunter (class) with the explanation that the character had captured and tortured a daemonhunter to get the secrets of the trade so he could become the best assassin in the demon realms.


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