Today we’ll be looking at the Cursed Sorcerer. The intent here was to have a sorcerer whose magic came from an old curse put on their family, which they then took advantage of in order to gain power.
I like the theming, and I like the narrative. The mechanics? Not so much.
And as much as I’d love to crack a joke about this creation being cursed, I can’t really justify that. It just has some issues, that’s all.
A Terrible Night to Have a Curse
Well, I guess there is one cursed aspect of this one – namely that I lost the original version and had to re-make it from scratch. I don’t think the original incarnation was significantly different to the version I remade, but that uncertainty does haunt me to an extent.
The main issue with this subclass is that it relied too heavily on things that you really never want to happen. In addition, the fact that this was supposed to be a “curse” on you required the subclass to have negative aspects which ended up being difficult to balance.
In the end, we got a subclass that was difficult to use, easy to get killed with, and not terribly well balanced. And I can say all of that because the only person whose feelings I can hurt is myself!
And I’m… I’m fine. No, really. I’m not crying. I chop onions while writing website posts, that’s all. Every time.
Bad jokes aside, let’s take a look at these issues, shall we? I still feel like the narrative themes of this subclass are valid, so it would be great if I could find a way to make the mechanics work out equally as well.
Curses, Foiled Again
The primary issue with this subclass is that it has several features which rely on you nearly dying. This is not unique – there are other subclasses, even a few official ones, which have similar mechanics. The problem is that this subclass is on the sorcerer, one of the squishiest, easiest to kill classes out there.
What defined my latest version of this subclass was a gambling mechanic in the Surrender to Darkness feature. Besides only coming in at 18th level (and thus far after most games end), the feature was problematic in that it encouraged you to put your character into a near-death situation in return for only mediocre gains.
And yet, at a lower level it still would’ve been lackluster. If anything it’d be worse, since it would be easier for you to die. It’s one thing to encourage the barbarian to dip into low health in return for some sort of benefit. They can take quite a few hits even when low on health. But the sorcerer really just… can’t.
Let’s look at this in a bit more depth – the difference between barbarians and sorcerers. The former is one of the hardier classes out there thanks to a truly massive hit die and stellar AC. The latter is one of the least resilient classes both in terms of health and armor.
First is the problem of survivability. If brought to half health, a barbarian can likely still take a half dozen hits before they go down. Furthermore, thanks to their high AC it will take more attack attempts in order to hit them that many times. So a half-health barbarian can have a dozen attacks made against them, with only half of them actually hitting, and then they go down.
Meanwhile, a sorcerer at half health has a fairly good chance of being a single bad hit away from death. And because they have low AC, that hit will come a lot quicker. There’s an element of luck to it, sure, but the problem is that a sorcerer at half health will die much more frequently.
So, a barbarian at half health can be reasonably assured that they have a good chance of surviving as long as nothing catastrophic happens. A sorcerer, meanwhile, can be reasonable certain that just one more hit at half health will kill them – and if not, then two hits definitely will.
The second issue, though, is in playstyle and purpose. A barbarian is a frontline combatant who expects to hit and be hit frequently. Each hit they take is, in effect, one hit that is not taken by the party’s spellcasters or damage dealers. The barbarian wants to get hit, because that means their companions aren’t getting hit (and it also means, in most cases, that the one doing the hitting is within greataxe distance of the barbarian).
A sorcerer, meanwhile, does not want to get hit. They have few spells or abilities which require them to be at the front or in the center of combat. The very nature of concentration effects means that they likely don’t want to get hit both because it hurts and because it could disrupt their spellcasting. What the sorcerer wants is to cast haste on the barbarian and then stand at a distance throwing fire bolts into the resulting meat blender created by the hasted barbarian and their greataxe.
To put it simply, a sorcerer has to go out of their way to get hurt. Everything in their setup pushes them away from active combat and away from sources of damage, and in fact many of their other abilities (IE concentration spells) work worse when in close combat.
While the basic narrative concept of “hurt yourself to appease the dark energies tormenting you” is one that I feel is interesting, it just goes against the basic gameplay mechanics of D&D so strongly that I don’t think it’s very reasonable.
And Your Little Dog Too
Negative drawbacks to character choices is something that 5e seemingly tries to avoid. The one place where D&D handles race better than Pathfinder 2e is in their abandonment of the racial penalty concept. But D&D also avoids negative drawbacks almost entirely save in a few specific places.
So if we’re going to keep the idea of negativity alive, we need to find another outlet for that negativity. An outlet which, ultimately, I don’t think exists.
The main other option for this is a penalty or drawback for the sorcerer’s teammates. And that does not work.
Though D&D is a group activity, there are a few things which are traditionally inviolate when it comes to individual choice – namely the player’s character. People like to feel personally responsible for what happens to their characters. Having another person’s choice negatively affect your character feels bad, and so it isn’t fun.
While we could do something like “your curse backfires and penalizes your companions,” that mechanic would be incredibly divisive in the group – and because of that, it wouldn’t be fun.
One option that could be a possibility is to allow other players to willingly choose to “gamble” on the cursed sorcerer’s abilities. Perhaps a consumable the sorcerer can hand out to their companions which, when used, either did something good or bad. That should be fine, right? After all, the character’s player themselves is the one deciding to use it.
Well… no, not really. For one, we’d be risking giving the sorcerer a feature that they literally never use simply because their companions are all too cautious to take the risks. But also, just because “logically” the drawback isn’t the sorcerer’s “fault,” that doesn’t mean that people will always see it that way.
I once was in a campaign that used a more 2e-styled Wild Magic Surge chart for 5e’s wild magic sorcerer. This was because we (the DM and players) felt that 5e’s chart was too dull. So we used a chart based off the one from 2e, though with severe changes to make it less punishing.
Ultimately, that wild magic chart did end up killing a PC. And it wasn’t the wild mage either – it was another player’s character. Luckily they took it quite well and switched over to a cool backup character, but it still left a bad taste in our mouths. The wild mage player felt justified since it was just random chance, but others were upset because of how often wild magic surges seemed to cause problems for everyone else in the group.
My D&D group is pretty strong, which is nice. We got through that and finished out the campaign in question and it was a blast. It went phenomenally. Our DM (which was not me this time) also managed to pull off a stellar story involving the dead PC’s family which made the whole “incident” feel more like a “surprising narrative twist” rather than a “what the hell was that crap” moment.
My point, though, is that you can’t give any one PC too much power over the fates of others. D&D is a group activity so there’s always going to be some of this, but that’s part of why you want to avoid adding any more.
So… how do you fix this?
I’m honestly not sure. Honestly, the best bet would likely be to figure out more ways to make a curse’s effects “beneficial” rather than adding negative riders to positive effects. A curse of speechlessness which causes you to be unable to make sound could come with the side-benefit of enabling silent spellcasting (you’re still talking, you just don’t make noise). A curse of forgetfulness enables you to break free of charm or mind control effects.
This, of course, leaves the subclass with far too many customization options. Which is also not a great idea, but perhaps that’s a bit more fixable.
In the end, the real lesson here is that fun needs to come first in all things. And not just fun for the person playing the character, but for the others in the group and the DM as well.
A great narrative with balanced mechanics which aren’t fun is, ultimately, a bad character option. Sometimes I forget that. I try to craft a good narrative, then I try to come up with balanced mechanics. But at the end of the day, what I’m left with is a fully serviceable option which is just boring.
If I ever come back to this concept, what I’ll likely do is focus on curses which are double-edged swords, so to speak. As your character progresses in power and gains higher leveled spell slots, they also gain new manifestations of the curse. But if you’re smart, you can turn those “curses” to your advantage.
Each feature would be something like this:
Speak No Evil
Unlocking the spellcasting potential of your cursed heritage has saddled you with a minor curse. This curse is usually dormant, but is activated whenever you spend sorcery points. Choose one of the following options:
Curse of Silence. Your voice is quieter than it should be – you learn the message cantrip. Whenever your curse is active, you are incapable of making sound with your mouth but can still cast spells with verbal components as if you were able to speak. This lasts until the end of your next turn.
Curse of Tongues. Your accent is seemingly never the same twice – you learn one additional language of your choice. Whenever your curse activates, choose one language you’ve heard in the last minute. For 1 minute, you can speak and understand only that language.
Curse of Honesty. You spot minor flaws in yourself and others very easily – you learn the vicious mockery cantrip. Whenever your curse is active, you are incapable of lying or any action involving the Deception skill, but you add a bonus equal to your spellcasting modifier to any Persuasion checks you make. This lasts for 1 minute.
Keep in mind that this is just a quick mock-up of a feature – the three options presented here really don’t seem balanced against one another. I’m also unsure if I’d want to go with a “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil” theme since it limits things quite a lot.
The point is that each feature would be an additional curse added on due to your growing control over magic (IE increasing spell slots). Hopefully this would allow more specific curses, meaning they could be tuned individually and thus balanced easier. Activating them with sorcery points also means they’d pop up fairly often – I might even consider another feature allowing you to activate the curse X times per long rest in exchange for regaining sorcery points. Not too often, since these are all curses with potentially beneficial effects, but still.
As for the original homebrew, I think it just struggles from the inherent difficulty of adding drawbacks onto character options. It isn’t an easy thing to do well, and it’s extremely easy to overdo things one way or the other. I mean, just look at the berserker barbarian – the fatigue drawback makes them practically unplayable. But if the berserk effect was stronger, they’d still be unplayable… just in the opposite direction.
That’s it for now, but as always – let me know what you think!