Quirk, Flaw, Curse: What’s the Difference?

A-Z 2016 "Q"Yesterday I wrote about using flaws and curses when an enchantment check fails, and quirks even when it (barely) succeeds… but what’s the difference? All flaws and curses can be expected to be undesirable and have negative effect on an item or its wielder, and even quirks can be unwanted, or at least unplanned.

For my purposes here, there are two questions to consider.

  • Scope: how much is affected by the unfeature, or how often does it come up?
  • Impact: how harmful is the unfeature?

This breaks down pretty easily.


I see several scopes involved.

  • Item-only. The unfeature does not particularly affect the wielder. For instance, a sword with an ‘enhancement penalty’ or a wand of healing that does heal damage but gives the target a disease.
  • Wielder. The unfeature affects the wielder in addition to or instead of itself. There could be a skullcap that grants a Wisdom bonus but renders its wearer mute while worn, or an axe that sends its wielder into an uncontrollable rage. However, when not using the item there is no effect.
  • Bearer. The unfeature affects whoever carries the item, regardless of whether or not it is being used.
  • Owner. The unfeature affects the person who owns it, but
    • For this purpose, I define ‘own’ as being the claimed or declared owner and having access — you can leave it under your bed while adventuring (or even locked in a safe) and you still own it, but if someone steals it you don’t.


There are a few modifiers to the above.

  • Allies. This is is an addition to the Wielder or Owner scope: the unfeature has effect on the wielder’s or owner’s allies as well as the wielder or owner. This increases the nominal scope.
  • Triggered. The unfeature only happens sometimes, rather than always. A trigger is a specific event (such as the axe wielder above being wounded by an attack) or an outside circumstance (such as “only at night”). If the trigger happens ‘every time’ (the axe sends its wielder into a rage every time the axe is wielded) it isn’t really a trigger. A trigger usually offers some measure of control over the situation, and reduces the nominal scope.


Impact indicates how harmful the unfeature is.

  • Cosmetic/Superficial. The unfeature doesn’t really do anything to the item’s effectiveness or the wielder’s or owner’s abilities. Also sometimes known as ’embarrassing’. Normally a wand of healing simply needs to be touched to the target, but an unfeature at this point might involve the wand extending a pseudopod that touches the target uncomfortably — no real effect on how it works or what it does, but it’s not right.
  • Inconvenient/Minor. The unfeature makes the item more difficult to use or causes a minor inconvenience to its wielder or owner. The tentacular wand of healing might take an additional round to activate because tentacles extend and wrap around the wielder’s hand and wrist (adding a round before the wand can be used… and tying up that hand for a round after the wielder is done with the wand as the tentacles release): not hugely impactful out of combat, but can restrict the ability to do other things such as use a weapon or cast a spell while the hand is occupied.
  • Standard. The unfeature causes a significant but not crippling problem. The battleaxe that sends its wielder into a rage might fall into this category because while the rage can be useful (increased Strength and Constitution), the restrictions it puts on actions allowed can be troublesome, and ‘uncontrollable’ means the wielder can’t choose to release the rage to regain access to those actions.
  • Severe/Major. The unfeature has crippling but not lethal problems. The battleaxe that sends its wielder into a rage until there is nobody within 30 feet able to fight (including allies) would count as severe impact. It is something like the ‘allies’ modifier above… but I could find an argument for that meaning “allies within 30 feet are also sent into a rage”… the two together could count as Fatal, below.
  • Fatal. The unfeature is so devastating to the wielder or the wielder’s goals that deliberate use or acceptance is a very cautious decision indeed. For instance, if the battleaxe I’ve been talking about sends the wielder and everyone around him into a rage until only one figure stands, it could be considered fatal severity for the curse. Similarly, a suit of armor that provides benefits but inflicts (accumulating, not single) negative levels or damage on its wielder could fall into this category: “use the item too much and you die” sounds pretty fatal.

Guidelines for curse effect often include specific penalty values and the like. While those are easy to adjudicate, and I expect to look them up and include them, I have a preference for situational effects.

Evaluation Matrix

We have two elements above to consider. This lends itself well to a matrix, scope by impact.

The matrix can be calculated a couple of ways, added or multiplied. I’ll present both and then explore why I might choose one over the other.

Added Matrix

Item Item+Allies,
Value 1 2 3 4 5 6
Cosmetic 1 2 3 4 5 6 7
Minor 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Standard 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Severe 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Fatal 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Adding the two values together is very simple, and makes it easy to use the ‘diagonal assignment’ of severity commonly seen with such matrices. This gives me a ‘check curse result table’ something like below

Check Result Unfeature Value Unfeature Description
DC +5 or more None
DC +0..DC +4 2 Quirk
DC -4..DC -1 3, 4 Flaw
DC -9..DC -5 5, 6 Minor Curse
DC -14..DC -10 7, 8 Major Curse
 DC -15 or less 9, 10, 11 Lethal Curse

Based on the unfeature descriptions yesterday. I’d prefer to use DC -5..-1, DC -10..-6, etc., but convention is ‘failure by 5 or more’. I might tweak these slightly, using brackets of (2,3), (4,5), (6,7), (8,9), (10,11)… but I haven’t decided to do so.

Not only is the evaluation quick and simple, it puts the unfeature value on roughly the same scale as quality grades. If you wanted to deliberately add a curse to an item you could count it as a quality of a grade equal to its unfeature value.

The unfeature value could also be used to decrease the value (caster level) of a high-grade item, instead of doing it by increasing casting costs. This actually fits with the previous statement if you just say that a curse increases grade without increasing caster level.

Multiplied Matrix

Item Item+Allies,
Value 1 2 3 4 5 6
Cosmetic 1 1 2 3 4 5 6
Minor 2 2 4 6 8 10 12
Standard 3 3 6 9 12 15 18
Severe 4 4 8 12 16 20 24
Fatal 5 5 10 15 20 25 30

Very slightly more mathematically complex (multiplication rather than addition), and the diagonal relationships aren’t quite maintained the same way. However, I do see groups in the unfeature values.

Check Result Unfeature Value Unfeature Description
DC +5 or more None
DC +0..DC +4 1+ Quirk
DC -4..DC -1 3+ Flaw
DC -9..DC -5 5+ Minor Curse
DC -14..DC -10 10+ Major Curse
 DC -15 or less 20+ Lethal Curse

This isn’t quite as simple to interpret — I think I’d end up using the table for quite a while — but it gives greater or lesser weight to the pairing of the scope and impact. Big scope and tiny impact or tiny scope and big impact is not as dangerous as a more average values for both.

One thing that jumps out at me with this, though, is that the multiplied unfeature value provides a nice guideline for the grade at which such effects might be appropriate. A ‘standard, wielder’ curse here might be most appropriate on a grade 9 (or so) item, while the potentially devastating ‘fatal, owner+allies’ might only be appropriate on a grade 30 (or so) item.

Closing Comments

Yet again, I thought I’d have a short post. I’m already somewhat over 1,250 words, and there’s till some thinking left to do here.

That said, I see some potentially useful results coming out of this. I see now how certain unfeatures can be modulated to be more or less powerful. The axe of rage I used in my examples above could come in several different flavors depending how the rage is activated and who it affects (directly or indirectly). This opens up a huge range of unfeatures to apply to magic items.

Originally I thought I was looking for options for when enchantment goes awry, but it looks as though I may have uncovered easy means to deliberately apply curses to items in order to reduce their cost (or to mess with someone you want to ‘give a gift’ that keeps on giving…).

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