You’re surrounded, hold-up in the ruins of an old church. All through the night, the scourge of Black Court vampires and their Renfields have thrown themselves at the faded threshold and your hastily erected defenses. Escape is impossible – they have sorcerers among them, blocking the Ways into the NeverNever, and you have wounded among your number. The dawn is still hours away; some of the wounded might not live to see the sunrise unless they get help soon.
You fight off a fresh charge from the enemy, bullets bouncing from walls of force, fire and silvery blade rendering to smoldering rot the young canon fodder of the scourge. You stun yet another throng of Renfields, leaving them alive but unconscious on the ground. Ichor stains your gray cloak; you’re nearly spent.
You look behind you to the church, to your friends: some look on at the battle in awe, some with concern-etched into their faces, while others lie still in their bandages. Then, you look ahead into the darkness of the night: you hear the shrill, inhuman sounds of the scourges masters barking orders and the shuffling of feet as they regroup for a fresh assault.
This was it. You knew what you had to do. You raise your blade one last time, summoning your will. You draw upon your fleeting power, then deeper still till your living essence is bound to the spell.
Your last words are a fiery command, “Burn vampires, burn!”
The power leaves your body, the spell charting a course through your blade before leaping like lightning at every vampire within half-a-mile. The death curse carved a swath of fiery, screaming death through the Black Court vampires. After mere moments, the entire scourge was either dead or scattered; their hapless Renfields wandered the old church grounds lost and confused.
When the smoke clears, the survivors in the church find your lifeless body on the broken cobblestone path leading to the church, a smile frozen on your lips. Your friends close your eyes for the last time, covering you in your gray cloak. Later, after a small funeral, they all raised a glass of your favorite beer at your old haunt and toasted the Warden who made the ultimate sacrifice so they might live.
As morbid as it might sound, I love death curses. No spoilers, but some of my favorite passages from The Dresden Files novels revolve around them. They turn every full-wizard into mini-nukes, come in all flavors between creatively awful and flat-out explosions, and often add a final poignant moment in the often-shortened lifespan of a wizard. They’re not a new idea in modern fantasy (I first recall the concept as Wizard’s Lifefire in Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth), but The Dresden Files certainly has gotten a lot of mileage out of them.
This treatment of the concept, however, isn’t reflected in the revamped Ritual Magic system of Evil Hat’s Dresden Files Accelerated, even though they were kind enough to offer us several examples of other (arguably more common) ritual spells. However, it is a text for Fate Accelerated and it’s, well, accelerated – can’t expect detailed treatments for a dozen or more spells.
This is where a little imagination comes into play.
See, over this last weekend after I ran the most recent session of The Adventurers of Alex Blackheart and Kaden Nuru, I got to thinking about death curses as I reread the chapter on Ritual Magic. How would I implement them if one of my player characters wished to give their last full measure? I got to work, and ended up with three sample death curses for use around the table. Check ’em out:
A “Nuke ’em” Death Curse
Warden Rachel Gurney is protecting a small cadre of White Council wizards who are working a ritual to counter a Formorian sorcerers entropic mind fog that is slowly dissolving the sanity of the occupants of a college football stadium. As the other wizards work furiously to complete their ritual before the stadium descends into complete pandemonium, Rachel has been contending with a clan of vicious ghouls the Formorian contracted to stop them. In the last exchange, she was nearly disemboweled.
Sam, Rachel’s player, sees the writing on the wall and realizes that she can’t keep the ghouls at bay long enough for the other players ritual to complete. Tens of thousands of lives, not to mention the lives of her comrades, are at stake. Sam tells the GM, Roland, that she wants to cast her death curse to take out all the ghouls at once, and describes it as Rachel transforming into a living flame that leaps from ghoul to ghoul until they’re burnt a cinder.
Roland takes stock of the situation: Sam wants a big Attack that guarantees Rachel takes out the clan of ghouls. For simplicity sake, Roland crafted the clan of ghouls as a single adversary by adding the Dwindling Numbers condition (page 220 of Dresden Files Accelerated). Rachel will only have to attack one target that she can see, and Sam simply wants a large extra bonus on the roll to make sure they all go down in a single action. To achieve that, Sam’s attack roll would have to generate a whopping 21-shift Hit: 6-shifts for the clan of ghouls Stress track, 10-shifts to knock out Dwindling Numbers, 4-shifts to account for the remaining Need for Meat boxes, and finally 1-shift to Take Out the clan of ghouls.
He gives Sam the numbers, and ask just how much of a bonus she hopes to generate. Sam does some quick math of her own, and arrives at wanting a +16 to add to the attack roll or 8 stunts worth of benefit. Roland’s fine with that, and informs Sam that one of the Costs required for the spell is Special Circumstance: Rachel’s Death. He asks her to roll a Focus overcome action against +16 opposition. Sam fails the roll, which means Roland determines the remaining seven costs.
Here are all the costs Roland that he comes up with:
- Four Conditions: Roland tells Sam to mark off Exhausted, Burned Out, In Peril, and Doomed. The death curse will take everything Rachel has and then some.
- Time: Among White Council wizards, it is typical to have laid the groundwork for a death curse in advance. Still, it takes a moment or two to bring up the will and draw out all the power to fuel it. Precious seconds in which the ghouls might attempt to disrupt her cadre’s ritual or attempt to strike a final blow before she can.
- Special Circumstance: Rachel’s death is the final requirement that will bring the death curse into existence, and it is non-negotiable (or else it wouldn’t be a death curse).
- Attention: Rachel’s death and the death of the Formorian’s ghouls will bring the full attention of the sorcerer onto the remaining wizards, but not before they finish their task.
- Altered Effect of Drawback: Roland suggests the power of Rachel’s death curse can’t be so neatly contained, and it becomes a swirling Maelstrom of Fire after attacking the ghouls. Sam’s fine with this, as it’ll be up to her friends (or the City’s emergency services) to extinguish the flames that were once Rachel’s life.
Sam agrees to all the costs, getting her +16 to add to her roll. Her roll, plus all bonuses, results in a +28 result. After taking away from that for the ghouls attempting to defend themselves, the final result is a 22-shift hit. Just enough to take out the clan of ghouls.
Sam describes Rachel planting her sword and staff into the ground as she begins to glow like the sun, transmuting into fire which incinerates each ghoul in turn. The block the wizards are on erupts into a maelstrom of fire as the spells energy burns itself out on anything it touches.
A “Lose Your Power” Death Curse
A few scenes later, the White Council wizards have finally cornered the Formorian sorcerer terrorizing the City. After a harrowing battle of spell-slinging and sword-dueling, they have the fish-headed monstrosity on the ropes. Leandra, played by Bridget, was Rachel Gurney’s apprentice and with her mistresses sword in hand she is determined to strike the final blow. But the Formorian sorcerer is powerful, and he has one last vile act in store to add insult to injury: a death curse of his own aimed at Leandra.
The Formorian, Roland explains, isn’t interested in killing Leandra out right. Instead, it wants to inflict a lasting condition that will render her powerless. He considers the situation, and decides that since this Condition’s objective is to cause harm by depriving Leandra of her powers, that a successful Attack roll is required for the sorcerer to inflict it on her. This of course gives Leandra a chance to defend, pitting her budding powers against the sorcerers last ditch effort.
Bridget is fine with this, so Roland goes about creating the death curse. The Formorian doesn’t have a lot left in the tank, but it can trade its soul to the dark powers it serves in exchange for this curse. In order to ensure a Hit, Roland decides that he wants 4 stunts of benefit for a +8 plus the lasting condition. That’s a total opposition of +12 and 7 Costs.
The condition he creates has the following effect:
- Blocked (lasting): [x] Mark this condition immediately. You are blocked and rendered powerless, unable to use magic. To begin recovery, someone must use magic or supernatural influence to temporarily overcome the block which takes an overcome action roll of Great (+4) at minimum. Full recovery requires the curse to be purged through ritual magic or a human sacrifice to the dark Formorian gods.
Roland rolls a Focus overcome action for preparation, and fails it. That means Bridget, Leandra’s player, gets to choose the Costs. Roland rules that one of those costs must be Special Circumstance: The Formorian Sorcerers Death to represent the unique and fatal event that must come to pass in order for the death curse to come forth. After a bit of discussion, Bridget assigns the following costs:
- Two Conditions: The Formorian must mark it’s remaining condition, Doomed, and three boxes of Indebted. It’s throwing all that it has left into the death curse, and selling its soul to dark powers for aid.
- Time: Conjuring the death curse takes precious seconds, and Leandra senses it coming, allowing her a chance to prepare her defenses.
- Special Circumstances: The Formorian sorcerers death seals the curse, bringing it into existence.
- Altered Effect or Drawback: Bridget isn’t thrilled to lose most of her characters abilities for one or more sessions; instead, she suggests that the curse instead block her from using magic to do any harm, a crippling blow for a novice Warden but one that’d still allow her to play with some of her characters magic. She also thinks it’d be interesting if starting recovery was tied to overcoming Leandra’s grief and anger over Rachel’s death. Finally, she nixes the idea of a human sacrifice but instead offers tapping a dark leyline to break the curse as a risky, but less morally objectionable, requirement.
Roland approves of all the costs, and gives the Formorian his death curse. Leandra, seeing it coming, braces behind an Anti-Magic Shield. The Formorian rolls his attack, netting a +13. Leandra rolls on defense, coming up short with a +10. Leandra’s been cursed with the modified condition:
- Block: Do No Harm (lasting): [x] Mark this condition immediately. You are blocked and unable to use your magic to cause harm. To begin recovery, you must face your grief and anger at the death of your mentor, rolling a Great (+4) overcome action at minimum. Full recovery requires the curse to be purged through ritual magic or by tapping the power of a dark leyline.
The room quakes and the sorcerers voice booms as he says, “Never use your power to do harm again!”. There’s a flash of roiling, sick green energy that cuts through Leandra’s defenses and sinks into her, knocking her to the floor. When she comes to, Leandra feels the curses power coiled around her own.
A “Never Love Again” Death Curse
Fernando Garcia, played by Darius, is the lead negotiator for the White Council in peace talks with the City’s Formorians. These talks, held under the auspices of the Unseelie Accord at a local hotel, are being mediated by some of Mab’s finest courtiers. There’s an issue however: one of the Winterfae is Maela, Fernando’s ex-lover who has never let him go.
That night, Maela slipped into Fernando’s room in an effort to seduce him and persuade him to return home with her. Fernando spurned her advance, and in a move straight out of a harrowing folk tale, the Winter courtier and sorceress draws a dagger, plunging it into her own heart while declaring to Fernando that he will never love again.
In game terms, Roland declares that Maela is placing a lasting condition on Fernando’s sheet. Talking it over with Darius, they both agree that the scenes tension and drama shouldn’t be impacted by a lot of rolling or cajoling: Darius is willing to concede any chance at stopping the curse, as long as he can help define the end result with Roland.
The two get started: Roland states Maela wants to make it so that Fernando will be unable to love until such time that someone who truly loves him dies in his arms (this faerie is very dramatic). Darius is fine with that, so long that – as a wizard – he can pursue other avenues. Roland requires Maela to die for her curse, after all it is a death curse, and Darius suggests that he can only start recovery if he can be convinced that true love still exists.
Roland puts that all together into the following condition:
- Deadened Heart (lasting): [x] Mark this condition immediately. You are unable to feel the emotion of love – about anything. To begin recovery, you must be convinced that true love still exists, rolling a Great (+4) overcome action at minimum. Full recovery requires the curse to be purged through ritual magic or by someone who truly loves you dying in your arms.
Maela bleeds out on the floor, leaving Fernando shocked, empty, and in desperate need of an explanation that won’t torpedo the peace talks.
Annotations for Game Masters: When constructing death curses, or ritual spells in general, here are some useful pages and sections to assist you:
- Ritual Magic chapter begins on page 169.
- Page 172 has Prepare the Spell which tells you how to build a ritual spell mechanically and roll, which leads straight into Costs and Spend Resources on pages 173 & 174.
- Page 179, A Curse and 180, An Attack of Night Terrors are useful for making use some of the more harmful varieties of ritual magic available on the market. Don’t forget, or let your players forget, the Laws of Magic though if they’re mortals!
Wow, that was a whole lot of death! I think I’m going to take a bit of a break from all the killing and the dying for now, but I hope these examples help steer you and your wizards in the right direction the next time they find themselves in a no-win scenario. Unless you have a wizard Kirk who doesn’t believe in no-win scenarios. I think I’ll leave hacking reality and changing fate as a conversation for another day!
Thoughts or questions about these death curses? Have some ritual magic you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments!