DM notes section
Intended for use by game masters, Chapter 3: Ten Fathoms Deep contains essays on the art of game mastery, with an eye towards how to meet and exceed player expectations for adventures with buried treasures and pirate curses. Let me introduce you to the curses section, you can see a concrete example of how to use a curse to drive a campaign in the "Backers Only" updates.
Another popular element of pirate stories is the notion of curses. Historically, sailors were a highly superstitious lot. Their lives and livelihoods depended on a mercurial force, and a moment's laxity in discipline could cost five men their lives. With such a high fatality rate, many ships found it practical to have a priest aboard to soothe the fear in the crew's souls on lengthy voyages.
In a world like that of Pathfinder, where curses and the favor of the gods have very real, measurable effects, this superstition is likely to be multiplied. PCs and NPCs with demonstrable command of magic are very likely to be feared and respected – sometimes to ridiculous lengths. This mindset is not unreasonable, however, as curses are all too real and can affect anyone without sufficient protection.
Curses arise from two sources in most literature: either they are a retribution for a great evil, or they are the result of someone powerful dealing difficulty to those who have earned their disapproval. Either source is an excellent reason for a curse to be in a pirate story.
Retributive curses fall on the heads of those who have done something wrong. They can make for an excellent, nonconventional final challenge for an adventure that ends with the acquisition of an artifact. Be sure to be thorough when designing curses. A golden idol that causes all who hold it to become the target of violence is easily dealt with by setting it down. The curse should continue until the idol is replaced in its temple.
Retributive curses in pirate stories cannot be easily defeated – a 3rd level cleric spell should not cut it. Consider instead allowing remove curse to suppress the effects for an hour or two, at which point they resume. If you go this route, make certain there is a way to break the curse written into it – ideally written into the source of the curse, be it artifact, temple, or the holy book of the deity placing the curse.
Authority curses are a bit different. Typically, they arise from moments of great (typically negative) emotion. Despair, rage, regret, disappointment, or jealousy all provide excellent springboards.
Curses of this variety are often as poetic as they are punitive. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus' torment in the underworld as punishment for his uses of trickery and deceit has him constantly doing difficult, painful manual labor – probably because the gods thought he could stand to learn the value of an honest day's work.
As they are frequently engaged in illegal activity, pirates tend to be both ruled by and targets of strong emotion. When the spoils of a dangerous venture are in hand, a sailor might decide that his share is a little too small, and that getting a fellow sailor that he doesn't like thrown in the brig and deprived of his share technically profits everybody. Murder is also a good way to ensure that a man will never need his share of the treasure. In many forms of literature, curses arise when people are in transitional states (at birth/death, during a wedding, a betrayal).
Just getting angry – even very angry – is not enough of an emotional change to warp the world around a person or fate. There must be a change, and it must be dramatic. For a guideline, if an event or action would cause a person to potentially change their alignment, or make a Will save against madness, then it is ripe for opportunity to justify the existence of a curse.
Another important aspect of curses in pirate fiction is that they are escapable. This process is often lengthy, difficult, and involved, but a curse can always be lifted. What makes a curse really authentic, though, is if it alters the character's alignment, just as the change caused by another created the curse in the first place. The curse should rule the character's life, ideally entirely, but some corner of it is acceptable as well.