Monday, February 6, 2017

Spells Through The Ages – Remove Curse

Voodo doll with pins
Let's say that something truly disastrous has befallen you. A real catastrophe. Something that you can't shake, can't get rid of, no matter how you try. Sinister, demonic powers have taken hold; that sort of thing. You've been well and truly cursed! How do you correct this state of affairs? Remove curse is the magic that you're looking for.

Original D&D 

Remove Curse: A spell to remove any one curse or evil sending. Note that using this spell on a "cursed sword", for example, would make the weapon an ordinary sword, not some form of enchanted blade. Range: Adjacent to the object.
In Original D&D, remove curse is 4th-level magic-user (wizard) spell, and a 3rd-level cleric spell. There are times when, as a spell of resuscitation and protection, I forget that it's on the magic-user list, but of course it actually appears there first in the book (Vol-1).

In OD&D Vol-2, there are basically only three cursed items: a cursed sword (-2), a cursed scroll (5 different possible effects), and a cursed ring (ring of weakness). Only the ring specifies that, "Once on the hand this ring cannot be removed without the application of a Remove Curse spell from a Cleric".

Generally speaking, in OD&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk, the magic item list was expanded such that any particular form of magic item had an analog that was cursed (I dare say: most of the new items in Sup-I are cursed items). The idiom of not being able to get rid of such items was used more widely there. The rule was applied to swords for the first time: "Once grasped, this weapon will never willingly leave the holder’s hand, and it will immediately force him to seek battle with as many monsters as possible. A Remove Curse or a Wish (Limited included) will remove the influence" (Sup-I, p. 46; note no restriction to clerics as for the original ring above). See also: ring of contrariness, bag of beans, drums of deafness, gauntlets of fumbling, etc., etc. In this context, having access to remove curse becomes much more critical.

Expert D&D

Remove Curse* 
Range: 0'
Duration: permanent

This spell will remove the effects of a curse put on a character or free a character from a cursed magical item. A remove curse spell will only remove one curse.

The reverse of this spell (curse) causes a misfortune or penalty to the creature upon which it is cast. Curses are limited only by the caster's imagination, but the DM may turn a curse that is too powerful back on the caster! Typical limits to curses include: -4 to hit, or -2 on saves, or prime requisite reduced by half, etc. A successful saving throw means the curse has no effect. There is no limit to the number of times a character can be cursed, provided each curse penalizes the character in a different way.
This language comes from the cleric spell list, while the magic-user version simply says, "This spell is exactly like the clerical spell of the same name (page X13)". The effect in this edition is basically the same, but the "evil sending" language is gone, and it refers directly only to cursed magical items.

The primary new feature, and most of the text, is now the ability to reverse the spell (indicated by the asterisk next to the title) and actually cast a curse on someone (permanently). This is available to both clerics and magic-users (one of only 6 reversible MU spells in the game); in OD&D it was not noted as being reversible for either class.

For logical flow, I'm in the habit of looking at the B/X branch of rules prior to the separate AD&D line; but despite that, it bears pointing out that Gygax's AD&D Player's Handbook came out in 1978, and Cook's D&D Expert Rules came out in 1980. So this is one of numerous instances where Cook was almost surely taking thematic direction from Gygax's AD&D work.

AD&D 1st Edition

Remove Curse (Abjuration) Reversible

Level: 3
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 6 segments
Saving Throw: Special

Explanation/Description: Upon casting this spell, the cleric is usually able to remove a curse - whether it be on an object, a person, or in the form of some undesired sending or evil presence. Note that the remove curse spell will not affect a cursed shield, weapon or suit of armor, for example, although the spell will typically enable the person afflicted with any such cursed item to be rid of it. The reverse of the spell is not permanent; the bestow curse lasts for 1 turn for every level of experience of the cleric using the spell. It will lower one ability of the victim to 3 (your DM will determine which by random selection) 50% of the time; reduce the victim’s “to hit” and saving throw probabilities by -4 25% of the time; or make the victim 50% likely per turn to drop whatever he, she, or it is holding (or simply do nothing in the case of creatures not using tools) 25% of the time. It is possible for a cleric to devise his or her own curse, and it should be similar in power to those shown. Consult your referee. The target of a bestow curse spell must be touched. If the victim is touched, a saving throw is still applicable and if it is successful, the effect is negated.
Again, the text above is from the clerical list (now alphabetically positioned first, in contrast to OD&D where wizards were given priority and clerics the after-thought); the magic-user listing also says it is identical (although still at 4th level). Among the reversals is the spell's effect on a permanent magic item: whereas in OD&D, it would actually "make the weapon an ordinary sword", that was in the time before such items were made universally "sticky" on the user; here, the spell will simply separate such an item from the user, and otherwise "not affect a cursed shield, weapon or suit of armor".

The reverse of the spell is a bit more formalized in its effect than in Cook's Expert rules -- a roll for exact effect. But that's very minor compared to the critical difference: Cook's curse is apparently permanent, while Gygax's bestow curse only lasts 1 turn per caster level. That's a big delta-value. I think I would tip my hat to Cook in this regard; it's both briefer text and makes the spell at least hypothetically interesting (I've never seen it get used in-game; certainly not for a few-turns duration).

Edit: Another difference being the effect of the ability-score penalty. At first glance I thought the penalty here was lowering an ability score by 3, but it's actually lowering it to 3 (i.e., the minimum allowed score). That's really punishing, but I can see that as making thematic sense for a curse. Cook had a somewhat more moderate lowering of the prime requisite by half. (Thanks to JB in the comments.)

The AD&D DMG specifies that remove curse may be used by a cleric of at least 12th level on a transformed lycanthrope to remove that condition. Apparently that may only be attempted once, after which more severe measures must be taken.

AD&D 2nd Edition

Remove Curse

Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 4
Saving Throw: Special

Upon casting this spell, the wizard is usually able to remove a curse--whether it is on an object, on a person, or in the form of some undesired sending or evil presence. Note that the remove curse spell cannot affect a cursed shield, weapon, or suit of armor, for example, although it usually enables a person afflicted with a cursed item to be rid of it. Certain special curses may not be countered by this spell, or may be countered only by a caster of a certain level or higher. A caster of 12th level or higher can cure lycanthropy with this spell by casting it on the animal form. The were-creature receives a saving throw vs. spell and, if successful, the spell fails and the wizard must gain a level before attempting the remedy again.

The reverse of the spell is not permanent; the bestow curse lasts one turn for every experience level of the wizard casting the spell. It causes one of the following effects (roll percentile dice):

It is possible for a wizard to devise his own curse, and it should be similar in power to those given (the DM has final say). The subject of a bestow curse spell must be touched. If the subject is touched, a saving throw is still applicable; if it is successful, the effect is negated. The bestowed curse cannot be dispelled.
Mostly this is copy-and-pasted from 1E. The DMG detail on use against lycanthropy has been inserted. The text description of the possible effects has been presented as a table. Cook has faithfully followed Gygax's short duration for the bestow curse effect (in contrast to his earlier presentation in the D&D Expert rules).

D&D 3rd Edition

Remove Curse
Level: Brd 3, Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Target: Creature or item touched
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Will negates (harmless)
Spell Resistance: Yes (harmless)

Remove curse instantaneously removes all curses on an object or a person. Remove curse does not remove the curse from a cursed shield, weapon, or suit of armor, although the spell typically enables the person afflicted with any such cursed item to remove and get rid of it. Certain special curses may not be countered by this spell or may be countered only by a caster of a certain level or higher. Remove curse counters and dispels bestow curse.
Same spell, same name, same effects, same levels, close to the same phrasing since 1E. One difference is that 3E made the move to delete the idea of "reversible" spells, instead splitting those off to separate entries entirely, to wit:

Bestow Curse
Level: Brd 3, Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Target: Creature touched
Duration: Permanent
Saving Throw: Will negates
Spell Resistance: Yes

The character places a curse on the creature touched. The character chooses one of the three  following effects:
  • -6 effective decrease to an ability score (minimum 1).
  • -4 enhancement penalty on attack rolls, saving throws, ability checks, and skill checks.
  • Each turn, the target has a 50% chance to act normally; otherwise, the target takes no action.
The character may also invent the a new curse, but it should be no more powerful than those listed above, and the DM has final say on the curse's effect.

The curse cannot be dispelled, but it can be removed with a break enchantment, limited wish, miracle, remove curse, or wish spell.

Bestow curse counters remove curse.
In contrast to 3E's usual softening of spell effects, the bestow curse has gotten tougher in at least one sense: it is back to being permanent in duration (seen previously only in Cook's Expert rules). On the other hand, more as we we expect from 3E, the ability-score penalty has been lessened: only lowering by 6, as opposed to dropping to the minimum value (thanks again to JB in comments). Also, the effect is now chosen by the caster (not rolled randomly).


The most interesting adjustment to the remove curse effect itself was near the beginning, when between 0E and 1E the standard for cursed items was to become "sticky" on the user, and the remove curse effect would only separate item from person, not eliminate the curse on the item itself. Past that, most of the rule text was actually devoted to the reverse bestow curse effect, which itself mostly stable, except for differences in whether the duration was very short or permanent.

I must admit, I don't think that I've ever had bestow curse used in any of my games. Certainly not by any PCs. In the context of fast-paced combat, it's not an incredibly useful effect (especially when it needs to be delivered by a touch, something most wizards would prefer not to risk). We might consider it as a nice thematic effect for an NPC to use (say, an abused old witch or warlock), but for that we really need the permanent version, only seen in the Expert and 3rd Edition rules.

In my Book of Spells, I reverted to the D&D original conception, and in fact I removed all reversible effects from the system (only two for magic-users there in the first place); so bestow curse is not an option (although it could be an out-of-book specially researched option, of course). How often does remove curse and/or bestow curse get used in your games?


  1. My players do not use it. They prefer non-caster characters and the ones who like casters usually use spells that changes more the physical world than the mind of foes like fireballs, fly, grease, shapechange, etc.

    I, on the other hand, am very fond of Bestow Curse as I am usually the DM. I like it with the permanent version and maybe ranged spell. The classic witch cursing someone with its evil eye is too nice to be left behind.

  2. I like curses on lower-level monsters (when the PCs probably don't have a 7th level Cleric and can just cure the curse and not have to deal with it) or else a curse that's most entertaining during the combat when the curse is bestowed (when the Cleric is unlikely to have Remove memorized or be willing to spend a round casting it). Curses and possession changed for me when I started conceptualizing them as poisons and diseases of the soul, respectively.

  3. How often do these see use in my game? Not often enough for my taste, especially the reverse version.

    Part of this has to do with the nature of the [bestow curse] spell. It is (or was), more or less, an "anti-PC" spell. Only PCs generally have ability scores to hamstring, for least in earlier editions of the game. Nowadays, with every monster having a full set of abilities and the influence of computer RPGs (with their "de-buffing" and "damage-over-time" strategies), the idea of weakening opponent to set up the kill becomes much more viable. Drop a critter's CON score six points and it loses 3 hit points per HD, for example.

    [BTW, I don't think the -6 to ability scores in 3E is particularly terrible when one considers it only results in a -3 penalty to related D20 rolls of the ability...certainly not in comparison to "ability score reduced by half" (18 strength to 9?) or, especially 2E's "reduced to 3" penalty!]

    Part of this is probably due to a reluctance to include too many cursed magic items in a game...if curses are few and far between, they can be handled in town by the local high-level spell-caster. Likewise giving every 6th level cleric the daily ability to remove curses really devalues the potency of what could (should?) be a pretty tragic occurrence.

    And, personally, I REALLY dig the OD&D version...turning magic items into normal it prevents the abuse that's possible with the [later] versions of RC (selling cursed items, giving them to enemies, etc.). It makes it too easy to turn such a bane into a boon!

    1. Wow, I totally misread the 1E/2E ability score drop... I thought it said drop BY 3, not drop TO 3. Big difference, thanks for pointing that out!

  4. Coincidentally I just started reading de Camp's The Fallible Fiend, and in the 3rd chapter there's a lady circus performer who's been cursed to need sexual intercourse multiple times a day or she'll go crazy. Perhaps exotic stuff like that would be a more interesting option, depending on the tolerances in one's game.

    1. In D&D Terms that might be more like a geas or quest spell?
      I recall the Raveloft setting had a whole expansion on curses. I could definitely see adding a sentence or two about the possibility of implementing a more exotic curse (at GM's discretion the caster may compel the victim to undergo some non-lethal yadda yadda).

  5. Due to the great overlap, my instinct was always along the lines of: "Why do we even need Remove Curse when we already have Dispel Magic?"

    I think Dispel Magic has a much more interesting mechanical resolution, giving only a percentage chance of success unless you equal (in OD&D) or greatly exceed (in AD&D) the level of the effect that you wish to dispel. I add the additional stricture that if you fail to dispel an effect, you cannot make another attempt until you have increased in level. As a general rule, I use the Dispel Magic table from AD&D 2nd Edition, where most magic items are considered 12th level. This makes dispelling a cursed item a crapshoot when you first gain the ability at 5th level, and failure might mean traveling around paying NPC spellcasters to attempt (not necessarily successfully, they have to roll too!) to remove the curse, or in the worst case having to adventure whilst burdened by the curse in order to gain a level and another try at dispelling.

    This also retains a similarity to the AD&D rules for Remove Curse in that Dispel Magic, when cast on an item, only renders the magic inoperative for 1d4 rounds. Thus, dispelling a cursed item would allow you to rid yourself of it, but not permanently alter the item. A curse on a person, on the other hand, would be instantaneously and permanently dispelled, as is the norm for charms and other spell effects per the description of Dispel Magic.