Very early in the history of Ars Magica, it was established that many of the cursed items which characters might find were produced by a single magician called Himnis the Mad. Later he is used as the founder of cofraternity of Verditus magi, who for some reason use the limited time of their life to create magic items that harm their users.
Why cursed items existed at all is unclear. In Dungeons and Dragons, cursed items are a sort of mini game, in which you ensure that treasure is not poisoned or trapped. In Ars Magica, traps and poisons work far more directly and the philosophy of the game concerning mind control is far different. If you attempted to pull the thing from early Dungeons and Dragons where a character, by picking up a sword, loses their mind such that they must always use the sword, even though it causes them disadvantage in that character’s favoured ability, then that would be seen as particularly bad story design. Generally if troop has accepted the character, the Storyguide shouldn’t go out of their way to wreck that character’s main abilities: and yet we have cursed items.
Before the Order of Hermes supplement there was some question as to how large the Order was. It set the size of the Order as about 1000 people. Before that, when the Order might conceivably have been as small as just the characters and their ancestors, a single magician creating cursed items due to mental illness made sense. When the Order became far larger, and your character could have adventures anywhere in Europe, it became troublingly difficult to explain how they kept running into material created by a single person.
The size of the Order has in some sagas, at least, been radically increased to include sufficent members for all of the various cults which characters might wish to join. It’s difficult to see how a single magician, or even a lineage of magicians, spend so much time creating cursed items. There is a way around the shortage for groups who think it necessary to have cursed items. I call it Curdled Magic.
I first thought about curdling magic while listening to an episode about Daedulus by the Myths and Legends Podcast. It occured to me that no matter what he made, he was eventually harmed by his creations. If you had his flaw, you can build a labyrinth and you’d then be locked into it. You can build mystical wings, but they’ll kill your son. Other inventions had similar problems. Listening to the story of Daedulus I thought”Aha! This is how Himnis gets his problems. He is clearly a descendant.”
Then I thought that the problem with this is that it’s not playable. No player would deliberately volunteer to play a magus who spends all of his time creating machines that eventually kill him and destroy his family members. How could this be modified? Can you get the player to volunteer for their characters to spontaneously create cursed items? There are two great points of unexpected failure with magic items.
The first is in the Extraordinary Results for experimentation chart. Those of you using ArM 5, it’s on page 199. What I’d suggest is an extra entry into the extraordinary results chart, such that the item becomes cursed: harming the user, although not necessarily the magus making the item. I accept that there is some overlap between the Side Effect result in the Curdling result, however I believe that can be overlooked. Side effects seem different in theme to having an item which is cursed.
I use the term “curdled” to suggest that the magic has gone awry, rather than that it’s been deliberately designed to cause harm, like, for example, an item corrupted with infernal powers. There used to be a Flaw in early versions of Ars Magica (and I’m having difficulty recalling its name) that meant that the characters magical ability was linked to their life. When they died, all of the magical items that they had create, and all of the spells which they had cast, suddenly ceased to work. I presume this was removed from later editions because a flaw which is not a flaw. It was an easy point for characters who didn’t wish to leave that sort of mystical legacy. You could design a flaw that did something similar, so that at death, the magic items created by character curdled.To be a playable flaw it needs meaningful impact on the plot. It could be known to be heritable, and the character is they have it, so it becomes the Dark Secret Flaw.
The generation of cursed items as a side effect of experimentation, or from a Flaw selected at character creation, adjusts the likelihood of ccurdling in a particular saga. A troupe can emphasize, or de-emphasize, the availability of cursed items to suit their story style.