“As the last of the green-skinned barbarians dies, the orcish shaman raises his staff to the sky and beguns uttering a terrible malediction in his guttural tongue. ‘Karuch tog na’darak,’ he shouts at you. A sense of dread rises in you, the back of your neck prickles. You have been cursed.”
Malediction is a fun word to throw at your players. It comes from the Latin mal (bad or evil) and dictare (to speak). So, it literally translates to “speak evil of.” More generally, it is a word or phrase spoken with the intent to cause bad fortune or destruction. That’s right, kids. A malediction is a jinx. A hex. A curse. Pure and simple.
Of course, the idea behind a curse is simple: if you speak a desire out loud, you might have the power to make it true. Why? Well, the explanation varies from culture to culture and curse to curse. You might be invoking evil spirits or natural forces, you might be calling upon a deity (good or evil), or it might be that your own words and you own will has power.
Not all curses need to be spoken, though. One of the oldest and most famous curses starts with nothing more than a dirty look: the Evil Eye. Many cultures have Evil Eye superstitions, particularly in northern Africa, the Middle East, around the Mediterranean Sea, and in southern Asia. In some places, it was believed that some people had the power to visit misfortune on those with a nasty look. In others, it was believed that any individual could inadvertantly impose the Evil Eye on someone. The Evil Eye is often tied to envy. If you are jealous or spiteful toward someone, your eyes can accidentally shoot rays of bad fortune at them. Nasty stuff, huh?
Of course, if you have people running around purposely or accidentally shooting evil curse rays out of their faces, you need ways to detect and prevent such curses. In Greece, for example, it was believed that if a drop of oil placed in holy water seperated or sank, it was a sign someone had been afflicted with the evil eye. Prayers, blessings, and superstitious rituals could be used to remove it. Some very traditional members of Judaism avoid speaking about good fortune or nice things they’ve acquired so as not to attract the evil eye. If such a thing does come up in conversation, the speakers quickly reassure each other that they are speaking “without an evil eye.”
In many cultures, talismans and charms designed to ward off the evil eye became popular. Such talismans, which often depcited an eye in some way, were also called “evil eyes.” This can get confusing to folks who aren’t aware that “evil eye” talismans are designed to ward off the evil eye curse, not to cause it.
Given that fantasy RPGs depict worlds of magic, it is odd that these superstitions often have no place the game. It would make for an interesting mechanic if people really could accidentally shoot nasty evil eye blessings without meaning to. Or imagine an entire city that has been cursed such that all spiteful or envious thoughts give rise to evil eye type curses like a sort of magical contagion of ill-fortune. Even if you’re not looking to base a whole plot on evil eyes and maledictions, it might be an interesting bit of regional or cultural flavor if anyone in a city touches one eye if they think they are bragging or boasting to prevent the evil eye. Or they wear strange charms or follow some odd superstition to prevent the spread of the curse.
Meanwhile, if you are interested, the opposite of malediction is benediction. You can work that one out for yourself because it is a lot less fun to visit those on your players. But, if you want to get technical, you probably provide benediction everytime someone sneezes.