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...


  1. I use it as is. I'm not particularly bothered by the fact that the undead have a significant weakness, since I'm not trying to run a zombie apocalypse game.

    Also note how incredibly dangerous the undead are - they level drain. Flub up a turn undead and that cleric is having the life sucked out of him.

  2. I don't usually resort to amulets and such, though when it makes sense, I've sometimes used areas that make undead harder to turn, like an evil temple to Orcus so infused with negative energy that it only stands to reason that undead are harder to turn there.
    Maybe I've been lucky, or I just like clerics, but it has not been an issue in my games.
    I've have had far more trouble with the Paladin's detect evil, but that's a whole other issue.

  3. Yeah, that's a great report - FrDave rocks the house! I'm expecting "mixed groups of undead" to be the poll winner as the go-to Turn Undead mitigation strategy.

  4. At my table, turning undead holds them at bay, but doesn't make them run. So, the cleric can hold roughly a 180 degree angle of undead creatures back, allowing the rest of the party to use missile weapons against them. If the undead are coming from two sides, though, the cleric can't be facing all directions at once, and if he turns around, the undead are no longer held at bay.

    This has tended to work pretty well; I don't like the constant use of items or "powerful evil atmosphere" or whatever. It's like constantly having dungeons where you can't fly or teleport -- c'mon, the players worked to get those abilities, let them see some use!

    So for me, it's preferable to nerf the turning power itself rather than to constantly invent circumstances that reduce it. I didn't want to reduce its efficacy, because as Pat says, sometimes it is really crucial to be able to turn. So I nerfed the effects of it, rather than the likelihood of success.

    It works out to some pretty cool results. Especially in one encounter where ghouls had the party surrounded, and the two clerics (big party) would turn in one direction to hammer the ghouls' battle line backward, then swing around to push back the ghouls on the other side, so the rest of the party was only forced to fight only a small number of ghouls at a time. The pushed-back ghouls still needed to advance back into combat, which slowed them down. The clerics couldn't just blow the whole encounter away, as they could if turning caused total retreat, but it still had a very strong tactical effect on the encounter.

  5. My games tend to be undead heavy and clerics are an important part of the player's arsenal against that. Afterall what would "Dracula" be without Van Helsing holding a cross to the Master Vampire? What would my games be if the PCs didn't have a similar dramatic moment?

    So I use Turn (and Destroy) Undead as-is, out of the box.

    There are though Magic-Dead areas in my world and "Necromantic hot-spots" that can mess with spells and undead turning. Plus any "named" undead in my world will have a talisman of protection against turning/command.

    I would rather not nerf powers characters have, but instead have monsters that anticipate these powers.

  6. The idea of transforming Turn Undead into a spell is intriguing, because it adds an element of resource management and planning, as Beedo described. I also like Matt's house-rule of holding at bay, instead of making them run away.

    In my own games, I used the "mixed party of Undead" approach, so turning would affect the weaker critters, first. But I've also always liked the idea of areas where Evil was stronger and the forces of Good correspondingly weaker, so sometimes there would be shrines, temples, whatever wherein Undead would get some sort of bonus against turning.

  7. In my homebrew OSR the Cleric has become the Theurge, one of a few "Holy Man" classes. The Holy Man classes stand midway between the Magic User and Fighting Man, having a little bit of the abilities of both. The Theurge and Monk do not have Turn Undead abilityb except perhaps in the form of a "miracle". However the Slayer does.

    The Slayer is based upon something I read somewhere that the Cleric was originally envisioned as being someone like Abraham Van Helsing rather than an actual member of the clergy.

    My Slayers then are just that. They are trained to battle the undead. Their two main abilities are putting the hurt on the undead (Wisdom modifier to to-hit and damage against undead) and Turning them.

    The Slayer is limited to turning the undead they can perceive, usually that means in a roughly 120 degree arc in front of them. They can only move at walking pace and perform "simple actions" whilst turning undead. I've cleaned up the table and skewed it in favour of the Undead. D results now do damage instead of destroying outright.

  8. Undead don't have morale, ergo turn undead. Otherwise it's always a fight to the death (think nazgul at weathertop if aragorn hadn't turned them).

    I mean, once their turned, it's not like they dissapear...they're still there in the dungeon (or the same room if there are no doors). Turn undead is best used for party escape, it's not helpful to turn a group of wraiths and then continue on into the dungeon, because now the party will be stalked later on...

  9. For my game, I allow clerics to make a single turn attempt per combat (with a "combat" being somewhat subjective). Thus, the two current PC clerics in the party can, at best, turn 2 dozen undead in a battle. I simply ensure there are more than that present. This is also good in conjunction with mixing types of undead.

    I have also made areas or zones where a cleric's turning power is reduced or even eliminated due to "strong evil influences" or whatnot.

    The players have never comlpained about either approach.

  10. On a side note, how do people deal with a "D" result from the DMG? I just say they are vaporized ala Buffy the Vampire Slayer tv show.

  11. I have both undead that are not mystical undead (virus undead) and require that in order for the cleric to turn undead, he must continue to do so. As soon as he stops, they return.

  12. I've merged the cleric spells into the magic user list, added a "Turn Undead" spell (and made "Restoration" a fifth level spell), and added a semi-magic user class (derived from Savage Swords of Athanor).

  13. In my campaign clerics have no power over undead. I do however use a necromancer class which has a 1st level spell called command dead, the reversed form of which works exactly like the standard cleric's ability.