Technically shooting fireballs and what have you at someone probably counts as well, but since these tend not to feature in real world traditions, they aren't usually included.
The word is also often used as a synonym for witchcraft as it is a popular pastime amongst witches, either on their own behalf or for hire or reward.
The legal status of maleficium varies by jurisdiction and era - in some times and places making the charge will get you arraigned for heresy (the medieval inquistion looked very dimly on the whole concept of there being such things as witches), in others it is recognised as a means of tortfeasance but not a crime in its own right1 (this was the position of English civil law for much of the medieval period), whilst in still others casting a spell on someone was a crime regardless of the outcome. However, in a society that fears witchcraft the opinion of the law may be a moot point - an accused 'witch' may not live long enough to face trial.
Attracting a charge of maleficium was pretty easy in some eras - if the society was paranoid enough an neighbour with whom you had argued the night before could wake up with a fever and charge you with putting a curse on him and things could go rapidly downhill from there. The nearest modern equivalent is probably an accusation of child molestation (or even "hangin' aroun' t'playgroun' lookin' at t'kids funny") - liable to stir up a lynch mob without any real evidence.
Game and Story Use
- Amuse your players by having different nations have radically different attitudes to maleficium - in one magic is illegal, in another, it's legal and any harm done therby is treated like a mundane assault. In a third, the use of magic in a crime is an aggravating feature.
- Keep them on their toes by having one of their civilian enemies accuse them of cursing him … bonus points if none of the PCs are actually magic users.
- In a low magic campaign, a PC finds evidence of someone cursing him (think of the witch baubles in The Blair Witch Project) and is told he is feeling ill … has he been cursed or is someone messing with him? Dare he wait to see how the game mechanics effect him?
- Maleficium might include casting 'detect' spells on NPCs and certainly should include charms, illusions and the like.
- The PCs are involved in the murder of a suspected witch - as investigating officers or witnesses. Depending on the era and the attitude of the law, hilarity may ensue.