Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Turn Undead, Meet the Nerf Bat

As a Dungeon Master, there are few abilities I loathe more than Turn Undead.  It's the one ability that neuters an entire class of encounters; in the post-zombie hype world, it turns an entire style of campaign - the undead zombie apocalypse - into a non-starter.  After 30 years of D&D, Turn Undead is a fairly iconic power of the cleric, but other than Hammer Horror films, it doesn't have a strong literary tradition.  (Clerics turning fairies is another matter…)

There are some options.  A DM could accept the status quo, and just use lots of other monster types - default D&D is fairly "wahoo" and full of monsters; when undead are encountered, the cleric just racks up auto-wins for the party.  When an undead is important to the adventure, the DM makes sure it's a much higher level, hurting the chances it gets affected by the "I Win" power of the cleric.

Apparently Gary Gygax had issues with the ease that clerics Turn low level undead, seeing as even the introductory adventure,  Keep on the Borderlands, features a cave full of undead each with an amulet making it harder to turn.  There's an important lesson there; when the DM doesn't like a power the players have, it's okay to cheat and nerf it.  No - I'm lying - that's a horrible solution, especially coming from the author of the rules.

In AD&D, the DMG presents an optional way to nerf the power - if the undead are in a group, the DM may opt to make the undead unable to be turned unless the strongest undead can be turned.  It's a variation on the option above - don't let the Cleric be awesome by making sure the threat is outside of his range - but now it extends an umbrella to the minions, too.

If you're playing a low magic setting modeled after the pulp fiction, monsters are rare and undead feature heavily in those types of settings; a zombie or skeleton would be an unnerving experience in such a setting.  But not if there's a level 1 or 2 cleric nearby - Turn Undead is a deal breaker.  I like the approach Raggi took in LOTFP, converting Turn Undead into a level 1 spell.  It's still a "I Win" power, but now it brings the ability into the realm of strategic and tactical choices, as well as resource management.  Turn Undead becomes more like a Sleep spell - potentially decisive, but requiring a meaningful choice.  I like that approach better than the artificial patches - constantly equipping the undead with "Amulets of Protection from Turning" or jiggering the "important" undead encounters to overload the cleric.

But maybe that's just me - seems like a good time for a new poll - posted up to the right.  Do you nerf* Turn Undead in your game?
  • We use it as is; clerics are awesome
  • We use mixed groups of high and low undead
  • I limit its daily use (like LOTFP)
  • We don't use clerics
  • House rules - see comments
*Nerf:  reducing the effectiveness of a game element (named after the popular foam toys...)  I figure most gamers know the term, but you never know...